Reads Reviews Videos

Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ stays in step with the original but knows when to improvise greatness

Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, and more star in this dazzling remake of the classic 1961 musical.

The following is an edited transcript of the video above.

Is the new West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, a remake of Robert Wise’s 1961 movie, which won 10 out of the 11 Academy Awards it was nominated for, or is it simply the second feature-length adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical with Arthur Laurents’ writing, Leonard Bernstein’s music, and the recently late Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics? Maybe we can say it’s a mix of the two, yet also something else entirely…and mostly for the better.

Going in, I had no idea what kind of remake or re-adaptation this was going to be — very few Best Picture winners tend to get remade, and when they do, such as Ben-Hur, the results tend to be undercut by high expectations — even though I avoided the trailer and most of the marketing, I did pick up on some of the casting and early buzz around the film highlighting some key performances and the expected update in casting, which has always been badly needed.

While watching the film, I was actually quite taken aback by how much they didn’t change in terms of story and music, and it all makes sense in retrospect because this is one of the most beloved American musicals of all time, less so for the story to be frank, and far more so when it comes to the musical’s show-stopping numbers, which are so keenly integrated into the plot, you can’t really change much in West Side Story without messing up the iconic songs, so a faithful adaptation is a safer bet.

The set up and premise is essentially the same, though with extra layers of dramatic tension and societal context added. We’re in a New York slum of the West Side during the late 1950s, and some of the white, impoverished descendants of European immigrants, many of them orphans of junkies and criminals, collectively make up a street gang called the Jets. Where in the original, their motivation was to keep their turf PR-free out of a basic greed and almost teenage boredom, we clearly see a racial and economic resentment held by the Jets against the Puerto Ricans who’ve moved into the neighborhood and are shifting the culture with their own businesses, restaurants, and even playground murals.

So the opening scene, while still flamboyant, cheeky, and musically brilliant with its snappy jazz, trades silliness for urgency, with an intriguing tone of impending doom and tragedy. The Jets gradually march into the Puerto Rican barrio and begin vandalizing everything in sight, so without much exposition — though we do get a good bit from Corey Stoll’s Lieutenant Schrank in short order — we understand right away why there would be a high-stakes gang war between the Jets and the Sharks, the Sharks being less of an equivalent gang of miscreants and more-so a local brotherhood of boricuas trying to stand up to the Jets because the police force historically looks the other way and will even admit as much.

west side story

From the start, we see Spielberg and this script by Tony Kushner establishing what kind of modern musical this is going to be. It’s like a new draft of an already solid novel, filling in the blanks and adding more and more dimensions to the characters and what really drives them. You understand why the Jets feel threatened and hopeless, and you can also understand why the Sharks have a strong urge to fend them off for good. It’s especially telling that even as a Puerto Rican, I don’t find myself utterly despising the Jets, despite hating what they’re doing. They’re monsters, but they own up to that description. It’s unbelievably painful to watch them enact violence against Puerto Ricans, but I pity their plight and come at it with surprising empathy. Much of that has to do with one of the film’s two best performances: Mike Faist as Riff, the leader the of the Jets and really our main point of view character for that side of this conflict.

For the Sharks, we have David Alvarez playing Bernardo, who is also exhilarating to watch, in no small way because he’s one of many Latine actors filling these roles, so there’s no brown face like the original, no dubbing accents or shying away from displaying colorful and rich Puerto Rican culture (and really. Caribbean immigrant culture more broadly, throughout this entire film). These extra touches offer a much-needed, multi-faceted window into not just the contrast between the Puerto Ricans and the Jets, but why it’s such a shame they can’t settle their differences and focus on the real threat they share, which is of course the ticking clock of gentrification looming over their neighborhood, a theme that certainly hits a bit differently in 2021 compared to 1961.

I’ve held off on the romantic element of the story thus far because it’s far from what this film does best. But yes, we have our Romeo and Juliet spin, seen through the eyes of Tony, played by Ansel Elgort, and Maria, played by Rachel Zegler in her first film role. Zegler is quite good, particularly during I Feel Pretty, when she’s given a chance to lighten up the mood of the film. Though one of the few updates that completely doesn’t work is where they place this exact scene, as it absolutely kills the momentum of the third act and is tonally out of place. Still, Zegler is so bright and charming during the number, the film managed to successfully return a smile to my face right when I needed it.

Elgort appears to be doing his best, but the problem is he’s surrounded by a cast that routinely outshines and outclasses him, even more-so than Richard Beymer in the original, who at least had a more electric, dreamy, even giddy state to his performance. Elgort’s singing and dancing is far from terrible, but you’re watching it all on a curve, because we’ll then cut to either Faist or Ariana DeBose as Anita, the film’s other secret weapon, who absolutely crushes every scene she’s in and then some. The “America” musical number is probably the film’s most impressive on every level, rivaled only by DeBose’s other standout moment during the entire gym dance sequence. This is a musical with a $100 million budget, and for once, I can see why.

west side story

The writing for Tony as a character is certainly better than what we’ve seen before, where we have more of an arc and purpose complementing his love-sick yearning. There’s a reason for why he wants to break away from the Jets beyond simply getting a job. There’s a reason he’s in a place where he assumes love will fix all his problems, even though it seems to only cause them. His best scenes are with Riff, to that effect, where we get a major update on the “Cool” number that is simply brilliant and emblematic of how much effort went into rethinking these set pieces without sacrificing what makes them last the test of time.

Again, almost everything they did change is basically for the better, and yet you still have this same, dazzling, unforgettable music and choreography still clearly owing its soul to Jerome Robbins, but now with far more varied, cinematic spectacles to match them. But therein lies one of the few major problems. By sticking with almost every musical number a bit literally and by not really changing any of the lyrics, just the spoken dialogue, the film has to inherit most of the story problems. I won’t give it away, but if you’ve the seen original, you know the third act goes in some directions that are incredibly challenging to believe. The immersion goes out the window in terms of who forgives who and how people would realistically behave and react after certain tragic events transpire. The film still ends on a fitting note, circling back to its original message, and I do applaud it for not straying away from that element of the story just to placate modern audiences. Especially since we know Spielberg has a traditional sentimentality when it comes to his endings, but in this film, he thankfully resists a temptation many in his position might not.

I really could go on and on about this miracle of a movie. A few things certainly frustrated me, but the final product brings tremendous joy while still looking truly effortless, like I’m already taking its existence for granted. For example, we have characters actually speaking Spanish without the use of subtitles, which is a seemingly small quirk, but it helps to immerse you in this world compared to In the Heights, which barely mixed in a few Spanish words here and there, as well as recognizable phrases. Here, you have entire sentences spoken in a more realistic flow, and it’s up to the actors to let their emotions and expressions fill in the context English speakers, and they absolutely pull off this welcome challenge.

The central romance is still a tremendous weakness of the film, where the lovely music can only do so much to mask the lack of engagement and authentic chemistry between Zegler and Elgort, as they truly look too distant in age and on different energy levels. Elgort is oddly more aloof than his dialogue suggests, and we don’t get one of the best scenes from the original, which has Maria and Tony simply goofing around with mannequins and enjoying each other’s company without all the melodrama around the impossibility of their relationship. This setting of the stakes behind their romance is replaced with somewhat repetitive brooding and even an air of discomfort.

In other words, these star-crossed lovers are far more interesting when apart. The film evolves Maria’s relationships with Anita and Bernardo, and Tony has a wonderful back and forth with Rita Moreno’s character, Valentina, the wife of “Doc” from the 1961 version. Moreno, of course, played Anita in the original and won an Oscar for it, so this film has that blissful passing of the torch quality, when DeBose comes in to inherit that instant star quality, plus Moreno adds a wonderful message to the story involving people who don’t feel Puerto Rican enough and an example of what a relationship like Tony and Maria’s could look like if it came about.

It’s wonderful to see Spielberg returning to big screen magic at this level and with so much enthusiasm and passion behind every facet of the production. The new West Side Story, while not superior to the original in every single away, is a vast improvement in so many others, it’s easy to tune out what still doesn’t work.

West Side Story opens in theaters starting December 10 through 20th Century Studios.

Support Cinemaholics on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: