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West Side Story - 2021 movie

WHY? It’s the question in the back on my mind ever since I became aware there was a new version of West Side Story hitting cinema screens. Call it reinventing the wheel, call it doing something that’s already been done. There was a remake of Annie a few years back, which I didn’t find appealing, but they had brought the storyline up to date, inasmuch as it was re-set in the modern era. This film doesn’t even do that, and there’s nothing in the choreography that I wasn’t wowed by when I saw the stage show at Curve Theatre in Leicester in November 2019. Same story, same setting, same songs. Oh, and it has Ansel Elgort playing Tony, who has been accused (but not, as far as I can tell, charged by police authorities) with having committed sexual offences of some kind. With or without that added drama, WHY?

The obvious answer to that is, ‘why not?’ – though I can’t help feeling, having sat through it, whether it would have benefited from a more radical departure from West Side Story as audiences know it. That is a dangerous proposition, because one shouldn’t mess with a masterpiece, but then we’re back to the question as to why it is being re-done at all. And much as I loved having the cinema screen to myself when I went to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (a lot of others had chosen to see it on Amazon Prime), it was good to be in a reasonably full house for this movie, even if the lady next to me had her popcorn box tipped over by someone in our row who couldn’t walk in a straight line to get to her own seat for some reason. There’s always one.

The remake is done to a high standard – there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be, given Steven Spielberg was at the helm. As ever with big budget movies, there’s cinematography and scenery that the theatre doesn’t provide. Equally, nothing is left to the imagination. Height isn’t the only difference between Elgort’s Tony and Rachel Zegler’s Maria – a point playfully noted. It’s not that Elgort can’t sing, it’s just that Zegler is very, very good, and when the two are singing together, the difference is noticeable.

Rita Moreno, as pretty much everyone knows, played Anita in the 1961 motion picture, and is back here as Valentina, who runs Doc’s Drugstore (Doc – spoiler alert – having passed away in this version, effectively giving Moreno more to do) than would otherwise have been the case. The Puerto Rican characters often speak in Spanish (well, they would), and without subtitles. Indeed, they speak English a little more than I would have reasonably expected, particularly when talking to each other. Much is, technically speaking, lost for those of us who aren’t multi-lingual, which makes Tony’s attempts to learn what he can all the more significant.

It’s a lavish movie, which is rather ironic given that, in part, it’s about people who haven’t got a lot of money being pushed out of their local neighbourhood by way of gentrification (the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is being built in the opening scene – its construction was the result of an urban renewal scheme). It’s engrossing and enjoyable, for sure – in a packed cinema, nobody around me whipped their phone out or indulged in loud conversation, which is more than can be said for many theatre visits. But in the back of my mind, the same question remains. WHY?

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