With some recent reviews, like 'In the Heights', I've mentioned that musicals seem to be something I've been getting more and more into as time goes on. As a result, I figured I'd check out a version of 'West Side Story' as envisioned by the one and only Steven Spielberg. With that, I should probably mention that 'West Side Story' (aka 'Romeo & Juliet') was never really a favourite story of mine. A classic in it's own right, just not really up my alley.
My hope was to go into this and get something from Spielberg's direction, or some kind of mind-blowing choreography. While these aspects are quite good here, I couldn't help but get the feeling that it's really just... 'West Side Story' again. I know, I know, what exactly do I want, right? I'll be kind enough to give the film some leeway on that. But I think the film's overall biggest strength (at least in my eyes) happens to also be its weakness, and it leaves me not quite knowing how to feel.
The story takes place in 1957 Manhattan, as we immediately see the turf war taking place between the Jets; a gang of white Americans, and the Sharks; a gang of Puerto Ricans. According to officer Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James) and Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll), who break up a scuffle between the rival gangs, their war is pointless. The whole neighbourhood is about to be demolished in order to make way for the now famous Lincoln Center. However, none of this stops leader of the Jets, Riff (Mike Faist), from proposing a "rumble" to finally settle things.
This brings Riff to his out-on-parole friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort), who wishes to start a new life, living on the straight and narrow. Owner of a Puerto Rican general store, Valentina (Rita Moreno), helps Tony with getting his life back on track, and Tony doesn't find it hard to say "no" to the upcoming fight. Tony soon meets Maria (Rachel Zegler, in her pretty amazing film debut) and falls madly in love with her, but there's a catch - Maria happens to be the sister of the Sharks' leader, Bernardo (David Alvarez). Their forbidden love then leads to a collision course between the two gangs despite the fact that neither Tony nor Maria want any part of this fight.
It's the story of forbidden love we've seen many times before. It's probably safe to say that you get everything you expect from the story if you're at all familiar with either 'Romeo & Juliet' and/or 'West Side Story', which both have a variety of stage renditions as well as screen adaptations. I think that's part of why I didn't see this as anything entirely special as opposed to... basically everyone else. It's just something I've seen before, the songs aren't new or different (and probably shouldn't be, to be fair), and it was never a favourite to begin with.
But having said that, let me point out the good about this movie. I have to say, for as much as I didn't really care, there really was no "bad" to this. Sometimes a story just isn't for me, and that's something I can accept. For those who love the original musical (be it movie or stage), I really think you'll have a great time with this. Spielberg has always done a good job at capturing eras in time, and the 50s is definitely no exception (even if I didn't like 'Crystal Skull', the setting was still well done). It doesn't stop at the clothes or the cars either. There was something about this that made it feel like it's authentically from the 50s.
Going back to what I said about the film's biggest strength also being it's biggest weakness, it's a messed up situation. On one hand, it kind of sucks that there was nothing very new or different about this. But on the other hand, it's authenticity for the era is what gives the film most of it's charm. It is a lot like watching a stage musical as opposed to many other adaptations that go out of the way to make sure you know it's still a movie... like 'Cats'... Anyway, the bottom line is that if you are into this story at all, you should definitely check out Spielberg's rendition. But if you're like me, just know that it's something you've seen before, and try to appreciate the direction more than anything else.