Popcorn Picks: “West Side Story” is practically perfect


“West Side Story” grossed $36.6 million dollars in its first three weeks at the box office.

After a long two years of waiting, director Steven Spielberg’s retelling of the classic 1961 film “West Side Story” released on December 10. Both visually and talent-wise, this movie is almost perfect.

Based on the 1957 Broadway musical by the late Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim, “West Side Story” is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in which a the sister of the leader of the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks falls in love with a member of The Jets, the rival American gang, in New York City.

With the current trend in Hollywood to remake classic films, Steven Spielberg made sure not to make his version a copy. Instead, he had playwright Tony Kushner write a screenplay that gave the character of Maria more of a backstory and added more depth to the plot as a whole. The main difference between the classic version of “West Side Story” and Spielberg’s version is that every character who is supposed to be Puerto Rican is actually played by someone of Latin descent, unlike in the original version where white and Latino actors wore dark makeup to play the Sharks and to look more ethnic.

This movie was highly anticipated by musical theatre fans specifically due to the casting of 20 year old Rachel Zegler, who, as a senior in high school, beat out 30,000 other girls for the leading role of Maria. Zegler got her start doing covers of both pop and Broadway songs in the bathroom of her New Jersey home until Spielberg took a chance on her. Her performance was highly praised and has since been nominated for a Golden Globe.

Zegler’s voice can only be described as “insane”- that’s how good she is. However, I feel like her acting is a little off until the iconic “I Feel Pretty” sequence of the film. Just by watching her, you would have no idea this was her professional acting debut, having only done high school and community theatre prior.

Starring opposite of Zegler is heartthrob Ansel Elgort, whose casting in this movie has stirred some controversy due to sexual assault allegations against him. Elgort’s acting in this movie was very good, however it’s clear vocally he struggled to keep up with Zegler. Elgort has a background in music, and when he hits certain notes that’s apparent, but most of the time he just sounds autotuned.

The three performances that took my breath away were those of David Alvarez as Sharks gang leader Bernardo, Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita and Mike Faist as Jets gang leader Riff. All three of these stars have either won or been nominated for a Tony Award due to their incredible performances on Broadway. They also are very strong dancers which made this movie enjoyable to watch.
DeBose has also been nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in this movie. I did not know much about Alvarez prior to this movie but I hope this movie kicks off an incredible career for him because he is incredibly talented.

Lastly, I saw Faist when he was in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway and even though he was not a lead, he still stood out to me because of how fantastic he was. I am glad that Mike Faist is finally getting the star power he so badly deserves. I really do hope that his name is seriously considered for the Academy Awards. These three performers being main takeaways from the movie shows how important it is to cast musical theatre actors in a musical rather than actors without that background.

As a theatre lover, I have seen too many movie musicals try to translate exactly what was onstage to the screen, thus losing what makes movies special. Due to his award-winning years of experience, Spielberg did not turn this film into a taped version of the stage production of “West Side Story” and instead still kept it a movie with beautiful cinematography of the sun setting over 1957 New York City.

My favorite shot was when Tony and Maria kissed for the first time behind the bleachers at the dance as the music slowly builds up behind them. I also really loved how the street lights all suddenly turn on when Tony sings Maria’s name for the first time in the iconic song “Maria” as if everything in his life suddenly makes sense now that she is in it. I can see this movie being a contender for “Best Picture” at the Oscars.

There were, however, some decisions Steven Spielberg made in this movie that I did not like. Firstly, being from Puerto Rico, the Sharks tended to speak a lot of Spanish. During these lines, there were no English subtitles. Spielberg made this decision because he felt it would be “disrespectful” to Spanish speakers and make it seem like they were not intended to be in the audience. You can get the sense of what they’re talking about based on the context of the scene but sometimes it was still very confusing. However, for a non-Spanish speaker, it is supposed to be confusing. They can feel equally as out of place as the Puerto Ricans felt during this time after they immigrated to New York.

The actors playing the Puerto Ricans also talk in an accent to make it seem like they just came to New York from their home island. Most of the actors, specifically Zegler for example, may be fluent in Spanish but grew up in the United States so they do not have an accent. You can tell the accents are fake due to the fact that normally accents do not carry over into singing unless you are speaking with an accent different to your own.

Besides these two things, I think that this movie is almost perfect. It is beautiful and emotional. It really does justice to the original while still being its own thing.

10/10 kernels. A beautiful piece of art.

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Twitter: @EllenFrantzTWW