I’ve ALWAYS been a fan of Steven Spielberg’s work. From family-friendly films like E.T. and The B.F.G., pulp action classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Adventures of Tintin, the award-winning director always finds a way to deliver. In an era where Batman seems to reboot biannually and Space Jam finds a new film, some films have remained sacred from the reboot button. West Side Story has remained in this category for the past sixty years, but if there is anyone I would trust to remake this classic, it is Mr. Spielberg. And my prediction is right.
An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds and the forbidden love story caught in the middle of the storm.
From the opening shot on a gleaming 1950s New York City, god’s-eye style cameras swooping and gliding over a vast construction site that will soon become Lincoln Center, you can tell that Spielberg intended this film to be great. The alleys and empty lots belonging to the city’s premier juvenile delinquents; the Jets mostly made Polish and Irish while the Sharks are Puerto Rican. Both gangs fight over the few square blocks that represent everything they care about, despite whatever change is coming along with the new buildings. This movement of change and the rumble between two gangs are the backdrop for our two main characters: One is Tony (Ansel Elgort), recently released from prison and eager to turn over a new leaf with the help of drug-store owner, Valentina, (the undimmable Rita Moreno, a great holdover from the original cast). The other is Maria, the baby sister of the Sharks gang leader, Bernardo (David Alvarez).
Tony and Maria’s connection is immediate from the first time they see each other at a school social function and is immediate trouble as a rumble is planned and sets the plot machinery in motion for the rest of the film. If you’ve read a bit of Shakespeare, you know what’s to come next. That doesn’t make you any less invested in our lovers or the events surrounding them as you move on in the story.
Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s script massage the text to make it fresh but maintaining the essential fidelity to the story. It’s still set in 1958 with slight implications of sex and danger, but the realities of race and class are blaring in this update. The setting of New York is still a classic stage for the film’s events to play out. From the steam grates, corner bodegas, and the laundry lines strung between tenements, the gritty beauty of the city shines with amazing cinematography.
Even in their first encounter, Zegler and Elgort don’t really dance, but their young lovers are the shining center of the story, with voices pealing from the speakers and their pretty faces alight with love that it makes your heart sore and want to protect them. Spielberg’s swooning closeups and wide-scoped musical numbers do most of the job for us to invest in the star-crossed couple.
The surprising standout and best acting happens off to the side with Mike Faist, playing Riff, leader of the Jets and Hamilton‘s Ariana DeBose, who had the difficult task of appearing in the roll that Rita Moreno originated on-screen and won an Oscar for in the original film. Both actors command each scene of gruffy toughness from Faist and DeBose is a rush of adrenaline on the dance floor and a small revelation off of it. Both show dimensions of their characters beneath their character’s exterior.
No matter how pointedly reworked, West Side Story is still high Hollywood fantasy: Where a sound stage can act like a Broadway stage where turf wars can be resolved with song and dance to make you hum along and scenes to make your cry as you become a part of the magical world you are witnessing. It feels like a rare achievement to even attempt to match the original, much less honor it by making the remake its own. After more than half a century, West Side Story still makes your sing and cheer.
Do you think you’ll watch the new West Side Story? Think you’ll compare it to the original? (Try not to!) Will this land into your top films of the year?
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