Jean Luc-Godard once said “The only way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.” I’ve never seen the original Oscar-winning West Side Story. I do know that it would be hard to make it in this day and age with the white-washing of the characters as they did in 1961. And also, it wouldn’t be a good idea to dub their singing voice either. Yes, it still happens. But if you’re going to make a musical, get people who can sing.
Story was a Broadway musical that was a retelling of William Shakespeare The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet using racial tension to substitute for the house of Montagues and Capulets. In this case, it was the Sharks, who street hoods from the Latinx neighborhood as the Capulets and the Jets, young white American street hoods who were the Montagues.
Steven Spielberg in his first musical of his career spanning more than 50 years of filmmaking and directing, does the right thing by casting Latinx characters and getting actors who can sing. Rachel Zegler, only 20, in her first role after being chosen from thousands of other actresses, is the standout here. And what a lovely singing voice and such beauty does she bring to the role.
Natalie Woods, may she rest in peace, was good. But her roots were mostly in Russian ancestry. I don’t think Spielberg or any director for that matter would dare case an Eastern European white woman as a Latinx woman. And while George Chakris, of Turkish descent, won a Best Supporting Oscar for his role of Bernardo, David Alvarez, a Canadian born dancer and singer born of Cuban parents fill the role better. Spielberg actually does a good job with the casting, even adding a black actor to one of the Jets and making a tomboyish character in the original a transgender person.
While some people might criticize this “wokeness,” I think the whole movie is a gamble for Spielberg where he’s not going to make everyone happy. Set in the era in which the musical was written and performed, this is the right choice, because times are different now yet still the same. Racial tensions are still an issue more than 60 years later. Latinx and Puerto Ricans have spoken out in opposition of the movie and they have a valid reason. Well, at least Spielberg didn’t hire a bunch of white actors like they use to.
The only issue I have with the casting is Ansel Elgort as Tony, the “Romeo” in the story. I don’t know why Elgort is so popular with anyone who has already graduated high school. I’m not even sure Elgort is still popular with the people he once wooed back with The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver. Part of the problem is Elgort has the charisma of a paint drying and seems to have the same bland expression at all times.
Also, the allegations against him of sexual assault and harassment seem more disturbing when you consider there are scenes in this movie in which women are treated a whole lot differently out in the open than what they are now. I feel Elgort was a business decision to attract younger audiences to a two-and-a-half-hour musical. But Elgort is too old for the role and just not believable as a NYC street hood, even for a musical like this. And you can tell he’s much older than Zegler and the allegations against him were made by underage women which adds more unease to the scenes that shouldn’t be there.
But Spielberg kills two birds with one stone. He pulls off a period piece movie as well as a musical. Since Stephen Sondheim passed away back in November, this is a fitting tribute to his legacy. You might find yourself singing the songs here without realizing they are from this musical. Rita Moreno, who won her Best Support Oscar for her role in the 1961, appears in a different role that has been expanded.
But Zegler is the best thing about this movie. It’s a shame she didn’t get an Oscar nomination along with costar Ariana DeBose who plays Anita, the same role that won Moreno her Oscar. Zegler won a Golden Globe for the role. Considering that she was chosen out of 30,000 people and only a kid, she was directed by one of the biggest directors of all time, she had a lot of weight on her shoulders. And she nails this performance.
What do you think? Please comment.