Movie Review: West Side Story

I can’t say that I am a fan of remakes generally, with the exception being when the original was a flawed film that had a promising idea. While the lack of Hispanic actors in the majority of the Hispanic roles in 1961’s West Side Story is a pretty glaring flaw, it is one that is the result of the mores of the time, which can make it easier to overlook in favor of enjoying what is an otherwise excellent film (of course, someone who isn’t white might feel very differently about this). Therefore, I wasn’t initially too excited about the prospect of a remake. As it drew closer however, I warmed to the idea, especially seeing  as it promised to right some of the wrongs of the original. And in a way it’s not that different from the way that Broadway revives its most beloved works over and over.

Most are probably at least passingly familiar with the show’s loose adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, in which we follow two rival gangs, the Sharks (who are Puerto Rican) and the Jets (who are white) in 1950s New York. Tony (Ansel Elgort) and María (Rachel Zegler), meet at a school-sponsored dance and fall instantly in love. María’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), who leads the Sharks, is none too pleased about this, having recently just brawled with Tony’s old pals in the Jets, and so steps in to keep the pair apart. This further enflames the tensions between the two gangs and so a rumble is set up for the following night at a secret location. Tony and María spend the following day together, and Tony decides he will try to stop the fight from occurring. If you know your Shakespeare you’ll know that things don’t go too well for anyone from there.

Everything is handled beautifully in this adaptation. The iconic songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim absolutely sell the central romance, even if it isn’t allowed time to feel fully developed. And speaking of the songs, there isn’t a weak tune in the bunch, with this being one of the musicals with the best ratio of showstoppers to filler ever written. The cast all do excellent work, though with this many characters some will be less filled out than others. Ariana DeBose in particular stands out as the strong-willed Anita, and Rita Moreno is allowed to shine once more in the newly created role of Valentina, who replaces Doc from the original and is here portrayed as his widow. This lets her take on a motherly role towards Tony and adds a character who already fully understands the way people will react to an interracial relationship. In order to give her a big musical number, rather than trying to write a new song in the style of the original, she is allowed to sing “Somewhere”, giving the song some additional poignancy beyond its original sole focus on the pair of star-crossed lovers. Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner also add in an element of gentrification to the story, as the neighborhood the gangs are fighting over is in the process of being demolished for “urban renewal” projects. It’s a smart change, which further highlights the show’s themes of the needless wasting of life that comes from racial animus and violence.

Having directed well over 50 movies prior to this one, it’s a bit of a surprise that this is Spielberg’s first musical, and he handles it like the true master of the craft that he is. A lot of the big musical numbers head out into the streets of the city to truly take advantage of the period and location in a way that the original did not. Justin Peck’s choreography captures the essence of Jerome Robbins’ excellent work from 1961 without outright copying it and Janusz Kaminski’s striking cinematography capturing it all. This West Side Story comes together to create a show that pays respect to the original but updates it just enough for modern audiences and serves to highlight just how timeless many of its themes have proven to be, for better or worse. While it may not have aliens or superheroes, it’s still a spectacle and one of the best times you can have at the movies this year. ★★★★★

Available in theaters.

Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking.

★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor

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