‘West Side Story’ or — Terminal Heat Loss?

‘Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ (2021) opens with the image of a wrecking-ball hovering menacingly over the partial ruins of crumbling buildings. It’s an apt image, not in terms of any deep narrative metaphor or anything like that but for what human wrecking-ball Ansel Elgort is about to do to this movie, namely completely demolish it to fucking bits. But before we delve into the rubble let’s appreciate the positives.

This remake addresses a number of the issues of Robert Wise’s original and these changes certainly make a welcome difference. Plus, Spielberg’s more dynamic camera movement provides a sense of urgency and immediacy to many scenes and there’s some great set design going on here too, specifically the twisted iron girders that form a backdrop to the fight over the gun.

Performances are strong with Mike Faist’s Riff demonstrating a suitably nervous sinuousness whilst David Alvarez’s Bernardo contrasts with a sympathetic muscularity. Rita Moreno is touching, especially when she gets to sing ‘Somewhere’, although it was Ariana DeBose’s Anita who very much stole the show for me.

And what of the all important two star-crossed lovers?

Happily Rachel Zegler’s Maria is a joy to watch as she manages to combine spark and vulnerability in equal measure meaning we really feel for her. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Ansel Elgort’s Tony who manages to combine vacancy and blandness in equal measure meaning we feel absolutely nothing for him in the slightest other than wondering how he got the role in the first place.

This means there’s zero chemistry going on between these two, despite Zegler’s admirable efforts. But her work is one of intense Sisyphean futility because whilst she fizzes and fizzles like potassium dropped in water he’s as chemically inert as a noble gas. It’s not that Elgort’s Tony is wooden, as that would be an inaccurate description. No, he comes across more like a slice of peeved quince in that he simply exudes a sensation of gelatinous irritation at the events occurring around him.

For example — a big deal is made of the fact that Tony is a potential killer, that he has a murderous rage broiling beneath his good looks. Yet it’s impossible to take Elgort seriously as this potential killer when he’s as threatening as a deshelled mollusc. It’s the flattest performance I’ve seen by an actor in… well, I was trying to think who Elgort reminded me of when, suddenly halfway through the film, it struck me I could imagine him saying “I don’t like sand. It gets everywhere” and that’s when I realised “Oh, he’s doing an Anakin”.

It’s a performance of such aggressively floppy dedication that I had trouble distinguishing at what point Tony had actually died as the only piece of evidence as to if he was alive or not was whether Elgort had his eyes open or closed. Admittedly Elgort’s Tony isn’t the most inhuman character to ever appear in a Spielberg movie but that only counts if you include the truck from ‘Duel’, and even that’s doing a profound disservice to the performance of the truck!

Other things bothered me that I couldn’t quite identify until I realised that I was sitting in the cinema shivering with the cold. Sure, it wasn’t the warmest of cinemas I was sitting in but I was struck at just how chilly this version of ‘West Side Story’ felt. Sure, Spielberg has deliberately toned down the bright colours but there’s a difference between ‘muted’ and ‘frigid’. Not only that but whereas the original had a crisp visual clarity this new version, in its attempts at period authenticity, had me feeling as though I peering through a veneer of colour graded sludge which, again, sucked out huge amounts of urgently needed vibrancy.

This lack of heat is compounded by the fact the music for the 2021 version lacks the syncopated punch of the original. Those finger-snaps, clicks, stamps, claps that punctuate the score now sound smudged over and flattened so there’s a huge loss of dynamic range and, hence, excitement. This is nowhere more apparent than in my favourite song in the musical which is ‘America’, an explosive number driven by social commentary, lust, flirtation and a blistering arrangement. Put the 1961 version on where Rita Moreno is a forward driving explosion of teasing glowers viewed from between open legs and I immediately sit up bolt upright like a sexually aroused lightning rod. So why does the new adaptation feel so rhythmically flaccid?

I think that’s the central issue I have with this new version of ‘West Side Story’ and that’s a lack of passion, sex and arousal. There’s no juice, no somatic urgings, no sense of thrust and for a musical about love, sex and death then that, along with a film destroying performance by Elgort, is as fatal as a switchblade to the heart.

The original ‘West Side Story’ makes me want to rip open my colourful shirt and reveal my muscular chest dripping with shining beads of glistening sweat. This version made me regret not wearing my thermal long johns.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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