West Side Story (2021)

To avoid negative news, another Boris speech and potential lockdowning news, I rushed to the cinema to see West Side Story.

Loved it — what a tribute to Stephen Sondheim. It is less musical and more play with songs — there’s a lot more dialogue than in the original. Also actual fights as opposed to contemporary dance offs, although death is done as a dance.

It’s a modern version — Bernstein and Sondheim do Shakespeare. I had a couple of Mark Kemode moments — I found myself absolutely wanting to sob as the Puerto Rican migrants sang about the good and bad points of being free in America. It was so emotional seeing everyone dancing together and well, squashing in a group together. I love the fact that they’ve changed the drug store owner to legendary Rita Moreno (she’s 89 you know!) Whilst America lacks the pizazz of the original dance off, I like how they’ve modernised it. Maria now dreams around in a department store as a cleaner, so her singing implausible things like I feel charming and enchanting are more mimicking the upper class speech around her. Gee Officer Krupke is now done trashing the police station — I’m sure they’ve updated some of the lyrics, but it is both really, really funny, and ironic and sad all at the same time.

Contextualisation is key here — the area is being ‘slum cleared’; people are either left behind, or move on and up….and out. There is greater diversity, in terms of culture clash and backgrounds. I really, really hate the treatment of Anita in this musical — glad that this event was modernised so that Rita Moreno’s character, Valentina, rebuked the boys she’d known all her life for turning into rapists. Much more powerful than the original where the owner doesn’t do very much and says nothing. Anita’s character is fuller and more developed, although she is racialised and sexualised as a ‘black woman’.

Dancing was better in the original (i.e. more of it, it felt quite alienating, reflecting the angst and alienation of the protagonists), and less camera shots trying to go up skirts — I think they’re trying to give a sense of movement, but you often see the feet and miss the main action of the dancers dancing. Cool also was better with all the finger snapping. However they’ve kept the finger snapping overall; the dance fight and culture clash of Mambo was brilliant and fizzed with energy and menace; the introduction of Latinx culture and native speaker languages was even better, giving authenticity.

Sublime, romantic, such a powerful and moving ending, especially as the cafe owner is on hand to mess up the crime scene/clear up the mess. As lead actors, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler were superb — I loved them singing to each other through a dangerously locked fire escape. Not to mention the museum stained glass windows flooding with light to mimic a church, when Maria and Tony’s date becomes a commitment. And oh, the colour pop during the America sequence — saturation hue is whacked up to overload there…

West Side Story is a deeply anti-Trump movie — we’re all immigrants if you scratch the surface; cultures coming in make America what it is (adding to its prosperity and vibrancy as well as cheaply doing the low status jobs) and we need to break down walls not build them.

Note to self: don’t employ Tony if you ever want any shelves stacked quickly….

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Susan Tailby

Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....