Winter 2022: a good season for movie musicals

Reviews of “West Side Story,” “Encanto” and “Tick, Tick… Boom!”

Swelling music paired with the incandescent light bouncing between Maria and Tony’s eyes says more about how they feel about each other than words ever could. “Tonight,” one of the songs from “West Side Story” is a brilliant example of the storytelling heights musicals can reach. Translating them into films allows stories to be captured in the most perfect way possible, an unmatched medium. From “La La Land” (2016) to “In The Heights” (2021), Hollywood has only gotten better at producing movie musicals. And, as it so happens, the recent winter was a particularly good season to go out and see one. 

West Side Story

Stephen Spielberg’s “West Side Story ” is a remake of the 1962 feature film and Academy Award “Best Picture” winner, which is a re-interpretation of William Shakespeare’s classic play “Romeo & Juliet.” Shakespeare based the play off of Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem, and Brooke took inspiration from a French translation of the story by Matteo Bandello. Needless to say, retelling this tale of star crossed lovers between rival gangs has transcended millennia, and Spielberg did not shy away from adding another worthy blockbuster atop the pile.

The plot follows Tony, a member of an American street gang, the Sharks, pursuing his love for Maria, sister of Bernardo, leader of a Puerto-Rican gang, the Jets. The two gangs have a habit of harassing each other. As the story unfolds we see Tony and Maria attempt to overcome their families’ biases in secret.

The film, released in December 2021, opens with a dreary interpretation of a 1950’s New York neighborhood leveled to the ground by construction and riddled with racial tension. It seems  almost dystopian until you realize that these were real issues back in the day. However, it is not long until those dusty grays and whites morph into colorful, spectacular, and bombastic musical numbers that give the Puerto Rican neighborhoods a sense of life that seemingly seeps out of the screen. Suddenly there are jumps to sequences filled with tone-setting midnight blues as the characters sing for their lovers, a truly ethereal experience. There is enough visual variety for three stand alone movies, that’s just how strong the film’s art direction is. There is not a single shot in the two and a half hour runtime that does not feel handcrafted by its makers. 

A good remake also knows how to add new flair to an existing piece of art while still capturing the essence of the original. “West Side Story” accomplishes this feat with grace, feeling like a love letter at times. Rita Moreno, the actress for feisty character Anita in the original Hollywood production, is smartly re-cast as Valentina, the mentor-type character. This choice is more fanservice than it is practical, though anything but detrimental. In the face of what the movie gets right, there are not any stand-out flaws. 

While the story and characters remain largely unchanged, they did not have reason to do so. This tale of forbidden love between rival gangs is just as gripping and engaging as it was 60 years ago. The female lead Maria is played by the remarkable Rachel Zelger, accompanied by Ansel Elgort as Tony. Playing the gang leaders, David Alvarez and Mike Faist do an excellent job of backing up the leads, providing the real meat of the production. Ariana DeBose takes up the mantle of playing the Shark leader’s girlfriend Anita. She provides a theater-rumbling performance with the musical number “America”, perhaps the most memorable part of the movie.

The only thing that should make you hesitate to see this film is the fact that the lead actor, Ansel Elgort, is currently facing numerous sexual-abuse allegations. At the moment, however, these allegations remain allegations. In the end, it is up to the viewer to decide whether or not this is a production they feel comfortable supporting. I would absolutely recommend it to fans of the original. Stephen Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is currently only available in theaters, but will likely be making its way to Disney+ before spring.


The Walt Disney Company is iconic. Many would consider them to be masters of their craft who have tirelessly squirmed their way into owning more than  a third of the box office market share, engraving themselves as a vital chunk of American culture. In the last decade their output has been dominated by massive cinematic universes like the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. Walt Disney Animation Studios, the core of the company, manages to stand against these large scale epics. It is pleasing to say “Encanto” might be the most refreshing and invigorating piece of media they have released since “The Lion King”. 

Encanto is about Mirabel, the middle child in a Colombian family blessed by a candle that gives each of them a magical ability. For example, her sister has super strength, her mother heals people with cooking and her cousin can talk to animals. The only issue is that Mirabel is the only one without a blessing. It would not be unfounded to see the premise as generic. However, at the end of the day the movie was made to be comprehensible to children. At times I wished they spent more of the film fleshing out the characters’ personalities. However, while they are all very archetypical, they are the best version of their archetypes Disney Animation could have possibly written given the runtime. The story is very centralized. Without a moment being wasted, themes of generational trauma and the weight of expectations are woven in brilliantly. 

What makes “Encanto” so interesting is how different it is compared to the last century of Disney animation. The premise sounds simple, but by taking a step back from the world-building journeys of “Moana” and “Frozen 2” in favor of a smaller-scale family drama, the studio was able to put so much more love and care into every detail. 

High-quality visuals are always expected from Disney and Pixar, but Encanto takes it to the next level. The small Colombian town is vibrant and fun as always, but most important of all it is populated and alive. Behind the fluid ruffles of dancing dresses you can spot cast members in the middle of quirky acts, complimented by a casita detailed enough to feel lived in. All of this put together makes “Encanto” one of Disney’s most re-watchable movies ever. 

Continuing his 2021 streak, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda covered the score of Encanto. At this point, you would think his talent might be being stretched a little thin across everything he has done in the past two years. It seems just the opposite, though, as his signature layering technique is the perfect compliment to “Encanto”’s fast paced visuals. In particular, the number “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is hands-down the catchiest song of the year.

“Encanto” is one of the only mainstream movies to take place in Colombia, a welcomed move by Disney.

“I have watched Encanto about four times now,” said Montgomery College student and Colombian Genevieve Reineke. “Hearing the music take inspiration from salsa, tango, vallenato, reggaeton, cumbia, and bachata was so exciting. Seeing the representation of all skin types made me so happy, especially for the new generation to experience on screen. Seeing representation is so important and it should start right when you’re young.”

Many on the internet have expressed their solace in a movie so culturally relatable.

“I think there’s a lot of relatability in every home of the pressure of one’s own capabilities and making our loved ones proud,” Reineke said. “I definitely resonated heavily with that plot point.”

“Encanto” is for everyone, genuinely one of the best Disney movies ever made, absolutely worth the watch, and currently available for streaming on Disney+. 

Tick, Tick… Boom!

Before fame, Tony Award winning playwright of “Rent,” Jonathan Larson, lived paycheck to paycheck in New York City while working on his first play “Superbia.” After Larson completed the play in 1989, he wrote his second play, the original “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” which was a spoken-word play about his journey in writing “Superbia”. Both productions flopped, however, Larson found fame posthumously, dying before the first showing of his third, widely acclaimed play “Rent”. 2021’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!”, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I am beginning to think has a monopoly over the musical industry, is a biopic and celebration of Larson’s life. 

In terms of how the movie turned out, It is an absolute mess, though a beautiful one. The first thing I noticed was how high energy the movie is. This is accomplished through a combination of erratic camera work and the stellar lead performance from Andrew Garfield, who is definitely the best part about the movie. Garfield fits into the mask of Jonathan Larson perfectly, putting on a convincing impression of a manic, late twenties, mid-life-crisis-having New Yorker struggling to survive and create art in unison. It is absurdly entertaining to watch him attempt to navigate adulthood within his community of late eighties queer folk. Garfield is accompanied by Alexandra Shipp and Robin de Jesús, both putting on exceptional performances as his girlfriend and best friend. 

On the other hand, the enjoyability of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” suffers from a lot of general inconsistencies throughout the runtime. The film is very tonally abrupt, oftentimes feeling like it is progressing without a direction. Inconsistent pacing is common, the middle portion feeling far too bloated. However, it is arguable that these inconsistencies better encapsulate the rickety life of Jonathan. After all, what better way is there to map out his psyche than to make the audience experience the same turbulence? No matter what, it will always be entertaining to watch Jonathan make fun out of mundane experiences, as shown in the songs “Boho Days” and “Therapy”.

Tick, Tick… Boom!” is not for everyone. The film is long for sure, but sticking around until the end will reward you with a surprisingly detailed, touching story that presents the question: “How should you spend your days on this ever-spinning earth?” This movie is most easily recommended to anyone who enjoys a deep narrative, catchy music, but to theater kids most of all. There are enough cameos and references that this could be considered the “Avengers: Infinity War” of the theatrical world. “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is currently available to stream on Netflix.