Synopsis – An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.
My Take – It is an inevitable reality that at some point ever classic film would have been remade or rebooted, no matter if the demand ever arises. And since we know that this is going to happen, it is better to see it done at the hands of cinematic auteur like Steven Spielberg.
Who while teaming up once again with screenwriter Tony Kushner, following Munich, Lincoln and the upcoming The Fabelmans, for his 35th directorial and his first musical has taken on to helm the second feature-length adaptation of the 1957 stage musical West Side Story, the first adaption being the 1961 film, which was awarded 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and has remained something of a cultural phenomenon in the decades since. A daunting task to upstage even for a filmmaker of Steven Spielberg‘s stature.
However, though director Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation possesses everything a good looking musical needs from brilliant choreography to fantastic musical performances and glitter, it ends up lacking the charm, and the earthiness of the far superior 1961 iteration. All the while also never treading into any groundbreaking territory. Don’t get me wrong, the film is fairly entertaining and fairly decent, but that’s about it.
It does shake things up a bit by switching the singers of some of the songs, and altering a role for Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the 1961 original. However, if you are familiar with the play or the original film, there’s really nothing that will surprise you with this faithful remake.
Set in 1957, the story follows Tony (Ansel Elgort), the former leader of the Jets, a white gang, who is attempting to find a new path for his life after spending a year in prison for nearly killing an Egyptian immigrant in a rumble, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), a bright-eyed Puerto Rican who is the sister of the Shark’s leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), a Puerto Rican gang, who are immediately drawn to each other after catching eyes across a crowded gymnasium floor at a local dance.
However, their relationship is doomed from the beginning though, with the surrounding conflict between street gangs the Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks weighing down any chance for their love to blossom, as their moment lights the candle for a big rumble.
Though its mammoth 156 minute running time is sometimes felt, particularly in the film’s middle half, director Spielberg’s ability to keep us hooked remains untouched. This is a gorgeous, specific-looking film that retains Leonard Bernstein’s jagged, urgent, catchy music and Stephen Sondheim’s tricky lyrics to express the story’s big emotions.
The characters too remain what they were in the first film, however, the Puerto Rican characters get most of the new focus. In a crucial update in the casting, replacing the 1961 version’s Sharks, mostly white and non-Latinx actors, with an all-Latinx cast, and pack significant scenes with non-subtitle Spanish dialogue to establish a setting and culture without alienating English speakers.
But despite these cosmetic changes, the remake remains light on social and political depth. Here, screenwriter Tony Kushner slightly updates some of the dialogue to highlight contemporary discourse about ethnic conflict, economic uncertainty, and police violence in America. It weaves these themes using the Romeo and Juliet story line as the backbone, but its interpretation of the story within the underlying civil unrest of the 1950s is underdeveloped.
However, what surprises well is the brand new character thrown in, played spiritedly by 90-year-old Rita Moreno, who delivers a speech attacking a shaming a roomful of Jets, a strained bit of Me Too oratory injected to make the film relevant to today.
The film has a stacked list of actors, who all mostly perform well. Screen newcomer Rachel Zegler, who landed the lead role of Maria from an open casting call, and whose vibrantly natural performance almost single handedly justifies this re-imagining. Ansel Elgort is fine for the most part, and there are times where they work well on screen together, but he is overshadowed by Zegler for most of the film.
In supporting turns, Rita Moreno, Araina DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andres Rivera, Iris Menas, Ana Isabelle, Brian d’Arcy James, and Corey Stoll are excellent. They are some over-the-top performances, but it works well given the context of the story. They’re melodramatic in just the right way. On the whole, ‘West Side Story’ is a fairly entertaining remake that is fun and melodramatic.
Directed – Steven Spielberg
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 156 minutes