Another adaptation of the 1957 musical and 1961 film, “West Side Story” didn’t seem necessary upon being announced. However, unlike most classics, “West Side Story” received the appropriate fine-tuning for a brand new generation; making an absolute star out of Rachel Zegler, whose success story is like no other.
Most likely know the story of “West Side Story”; Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) fall in love despite their affiliations between rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. To start positively, as much of “West Side Story” does work, Zegler is an absolute scene-stealer in her breakout performance. Look no further than her performance in the final scene, which does great justice to its 1961 counterpart. Not only is her singing voice fabulous, but she can also act. Her charisma and ability to sell the relationship as Maria — a compliment that only goes one way — is just the start of her very promising career.
The musical numbers are almost as stunning as Maria’s white dress. Whether it’s the dance at the high school or this rendition of “America,” it works. “Balcony Scene (Tonight)” is the obvious standout, being that it was used heavily in marketing, and Zegler’s performance on this song (and every other), is top-notch.
A fear coming into the 2021 version of “West Side Story” was that the story would be far more overtly-political than the 1961 version. There is a little bit more for Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) to do, but thankfully, the film doesn’t beat you down with the politics. Of course, the racial tensions are a revolving part of the story, but Spielberg didn’t sacrifice the simplicity of the story.
Opposite Maria is Tony, played by Ansel Elgort. Any off-camera controversies aside, Elgort does not hold his end up as Tony. Granted, he is really good in the final scene, but that does not make up for the awful NY accent (coming from someone who lived in NY) and lackadaisical effort in the romantic scenes with Maria. To be fair, Elgort is very good in “Baby Driver,” so this is not an attack on him personally. Mike Faist was simply much better as Riff, with the right kind of NY accent and charisma that Elgort simply lacked. When Riff is leading the Jets, the film is far more engaging than any of the times they role Tony in. That is unfortunate, as Tony is ultimately the bigger player in the story.
Is “West Side Story” (2021) better than the original? It does capitalize in certain ways, as technology and the filmmaking process have evolved so much in the years since the 1961 version. The backdrops, musical numbers, and fight scenes are all more appealing than the original. But there is still magic in the 1961 version, specifically in the romance between Maria and Tony. And as great as Zegler is, and she is truly magical, Elgort holds the 2021 version back from topping its predecessor. But “West Side Story” (2021) does update the story slightly while making a brand new Hollywood star in Zegler, and for that, it deserves to be seen on the big screen.
“West Side Story” is playing in theaters now.