Having missed West Side Story in theaters, I was delighted to see it come to streaming on both Disney+ and HBO Max in time for a review before the big Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story is up for seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Support Actress (Ariana DeBose as Anita who is the favorite to take the prize) and Best Cinematography.
West Side Story is one of my and America’s all time favorite musicals. So the new version had a lot to live up to. Did it manage to meet the wonder of the original movie version? The Conservative Critic asks: Is it entertaining? Does it have intellectual/artistic value and finally – is it liberal propaganda?
Conservative Critic Meter Check: West Side Story
Overall Rating: Amazing
To start, the musical West Side Story created by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Berstein and Stephen Sondeim based on Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet and inspired by Manhattan’s Upper-West Side blue collar neighborhoods of the 1950s, is a masterpiece. To mess up West Side Story, Spielberg would have had to basically change the whole thing. He did not do that and instead paid deep respect to the original musical and the original movie adaptation while bringing fresh modernity to the story telling.
With the changes made by Spiellberg from the original movie, West Side Story seems finally told how it should have been all along. The performances are pitch perfect (literally), the pace is almost spot on and the visuals are the true hero. Spielberg stayed closer with the stage production of West Side Story than the 1961 film, making quite a few slight changes from the film which some may perceive as Spielberg’s choice but actually is a closer homage to the broadway musical than the first film adaptation.
The effect is truly mesmerizing and over all West Side Story is a fun movie to watch at home and a rightful contender for Best Picture.
Is it entertaining?
Rating: It never gets old
Romeo and Juliet is already a great story about star-crossed young lovers, too naive to understand the value of their lives. West Side Story gives us all of that but modernizes the cultural realities to provide context for 20th and 21st century American viewers on the explosive realities of cultural conflict which at its worst can destroy even the brightest of futures.
The new version lets the story burn as brightly as it can with high energy optimistic opening numbers with absolutely stunning and athletic choreography that manages to be both aggressive and graceful.
Spielberg’s West Side Story has the added entertainment value of nostalgia going for it. Viewers will remember sitting on their living room floors watching Rita Moreno twirl around in purple glory as they watch the truly indomitable DeBose do the same in bright yellow and red. There may not be a musical bop which hits a more fun and powerful note than “America.”
There are a few moments of the musical which are too slow. Notably part of the prologue where Tony, played by Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, Fault in our Stars), and Valentina played by Rita Moreno (West Side Story 1961, One Day at a Time) introduce their characters and relationship. But overall, between the dancing, the street fighting and the moonlight clandestine meetings, West Side Story keeps the pace including in this new version.
Does it have intellectual/artistic value?
Even as a musical, West Side Story could have been completely silent and it still would have been a masterpiece. The visuals are absolutely stunning. Using the traditional broadway technique of dressing the Jets in cools and mainly blues and the Sharks in warms, Spielberg took it a step further by capturing Puerto Rican and Latinx culture in the 1950s with every bright and bold color which would fit in the set design and costume rainbow. The skirts of Shark women explode onto the screen with every turn like fireworks and the sheen of the Jet women’s silk shimmers like, ironically, a sea of sharks.
But with sound obviously, as a musical, it also is wonderfully done. Elgort has a beautiful singing voice very worthy of Tony and David Alverez’s (American Rust) Bernardo is as impassioned and elegant in his dancing and acting as Mike Faist’s (Panic) Riff is cool and self-righteous. Ariana DeBose (Schmigadoon, The Prom) is a stunning breakout performer who really carries the credibility and the weight of the story – as is the tradition of the Anita character. She is a true star.
Further, Spielberg’s decision to masterfully interweave Spanish into English for a true Spanglish, Puerto Rican American family experience was a bit ground breaking. With no subtitles, Spielberg challenges the non-spanish speaking audience to comprehend cultural barriers and the spanish speaking audience to realize the burden of assimilation and struggle of self-expression in the 1950s for non-english speaking immigrant families (and those of today).
The one drawback was Spielberg’s decision to keep “I Feel Pretty.” “I Feel Pretty” is one of the worst songs in the history of musicals and it always has been and it still is. It was only ever added to the original musical because after the major fight scene where two guys die, the producers were worried they’d lose the audience. West Side Story was very edgy for a mainstream musical in the 1950s and the producers thought adding a silly, more traditional “musical” song after the fight scene would settle audiences down and keep them out of controversy. But in modern times, it’s just jarring. Viewers are taken out of a violent and devastating death (especially Spielberg’s version which is quite emotional and intense) and thrown into a stupid and annoying song sung in all soprano with repetitive lyrics. The tonal shift of the story is totally ruined. I will forever stand by wanting “I feel pretty” cut from West Side Story.
Overally, the movie is a stunning masterpiece worthy of all its award accolades.
Is it liberal propaganda?
Rating: I like to be in America
Like Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is about the stupidity of race and culture warfare. It teaches us through the main lovers that race and background does not define who we are and that love and relatability can be found anywhere no matter where we come from. This is not a liberal idea. Liberals would have you believe that no person of one race can truly understand the story of a person of another race. They would have you believe that the American way is to be forever separated and slaves to our violence insted of finding a way. Conservatives know, like the moral of West Side Story, that we all experience similar things in life and we have more that binds us than that separates us if we were only willing to see it.
Further, Anita is by far the strongest and most sympathetic character in the entire musical and she loves America and she loves the American dream. She wants to be an independent woman with her own business and her own life in America which is full of those promises for her. In this story where hearts are broken, Anita’s heart is not broken by the loss of Bernardo (okay that’s a spoiler but this musical is 70 years old), but by the loss of America which she loved most of all. The true grief viewers feel in this movie is watching Anita give up on the American dream because of a handful of violent, small, men including the one she trusted most. To experience that kind of heart break for America, is to experience being a patriot during times like those we’re having now.
West Side Story is still one of my favorite musicals and Spielberg did it loads of justice. It’s definitely worth seeing and will probably pick up a few awards at the Oscars.