A handful of interviews that surrounded the release of West Side Story boasted that it was the first-time director Steven Spielberg had handled a musical. That may be true, but why is that such a feat? Spielberg is a journeyman director, responsible for great popcorn movies and sincerely moving pieces that litter a strong filmography. But those days are over, and it now appears he has a mental checklist of genres and topics he hopes to cover and coat with that likeable charm that has been on the brink since Ready Player One. His adaptation and subsequent remodelling of West Side Story has little ground to gain on an original that wasn’t all that exciting anyway.
To say that Spielberg has crafted a piece that is superior to its original would be correct, but not a high bar to vault. His realisation of New York City in a state of remodelling feels articulate, stronger, with actual depth. There are still the unavoidable consequences of poor musical activities but at least there is a glamorous appeal to them that does not stink of the times. It is the actual removal of the 1950s mind that see Spielberg play around in a greater sandbox. But even then, West Side Story is not very good. It still suffers from the uniform actions of characters on the move, something that just feels inarticulate and hopelessly staged. That may be the point, but sometimes the point is wrong.
Spielberg’s ensemble assembly brings life to a period piece aesthetic that adds a different layer of contemplation to that of the original. Modern life turned nostalgic, and although the dancing in the street has looser choreography, it still feels rigid. What is the point of a remake if the only change is to the design and background? No real, major changes are made, either because Spielberg hopes to turn his hand to preserving the historic original or because he knows he cannot innovate all that much. That is a blend of lacking genre experience and being sincerely devoid of ideas. There is a big band feel to West Side Story but it doesn’t matter if the band is playing a dud note time and time again. Walking dud note Ansel Elgort features as leading man Tony, in a performance that can at the best of times be described as one of the performances to come out of 2021. It is nothing, if not a bit annoying.
But that is West Side Story. Horrendously annoying at its best moments, and this remake blurs with that annoyance some very nice background settings and aesthetic choices. A movie is not worth watching just for a few glimmers of modern times reflecting on a New York that was current when the original feature was released, though. Still, if this is the feature that gives Corey Stoll an even bigger break, then more power to West Side Story and its frequent low angles, the quick cuts of the third act will not be forgotten as they break up lukewarm dialogue and nice technical aspects. Lighting and zooms are not enough to keep West Side Story afloat, though, and it soon turns into not a remake or reimaging, but a rethreading of an old plot with new actors.