Mr. Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story proves you don’t have to overhaul with a classic, you just have to preserve its soul.
There isn’t a genre of film Steven Spielberg can’t master. The only two he hasn’t attempted have been a western and a documentary. For his first foray into the musical genre, he tries to remake a classic with a solid set of themes that were as timeless seventy years ago as they are today: Toxic racism, poverty, and immigration. His remake of West Side Story is a captivating experience.
You still have those grease-painted Jets unfairly judging those new neighborhood Sharks (well, not that new). Led by Riff (an outstanding Mike Faist), the film opens with his squad desecrating a painting of the Puerto Rican flag on a wall in a West Side city parking. A fight breaks out as Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his Sharks defend his community’s honor. That’s broken up by officer Krupke (Spotlight‘s Brian d’Arcy James) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll).
I’ve always been on a team of you should never remake a classic. I mean, there are enough awful, below average, average, mildly amusing films with plenty of flaws that can be remade into better movies. Tom Hanks calls “The Great Exalted One” captures the core qualities that made West Side Story great, from its weighty themes to enhance the film’s score, including Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim classics like “Maria” and “Somewhere.”
Caught in the middle is newly paroled Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (played by the jaw-dropping newcomer Rachel Zegler). They meet at a dance and are immediately smitten with each other. Of course, Bernardo is very protective of his sister. He wants her to marry a nice Puerto Rican guy like his best friend, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera, only date here and not the fiance depicted in the original). Riff jumps in as Tony conveys his sincerity that his intentions are honorable and fail. So, the stage is set. Riff and Bernardo work out plans to fight at the old Salt Mill factory. Sticks and stones are allowed to break their bones, but guns are not allowed. Except Riff goes and buys one for backup.
West Side Story‘s script was adapted by the great Tony Kushner, who adapts Aurthur Laurents’ legendary stage play and book (and yes, inspired by Romeo & Juliet). Along with Spielberg, they make two bold storytelling choices. One, they choose not to use subtitles. They also change the tomboy character of Anybodys (Iris Menas), who is now an LGBTQ+ character. They also preserve the musical core strengths.
Along with Saving Private Ryan’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the whole experience is like taking a step inside a time capsule since the story is old enough now where it feels like being transported to another time and place. (Albeit, with both places having the same old problems). Combined with superior art direction, makeup, and costume design, the entire experience can be transfixing and addictive.
While Zegler certainly has the vocal chops to dazzle in this West Side remake, it’s Ariana DeBose’s stunning knockout turn That gives West Side Story its juice. In a perfect world, she should be a lock for an Oscar nomination (I swear, I’m going to lose it if Judi Dench gets a nomination for sitting and knitting in Belfast). She steals the show from her scenes with palpable chemistry with Bernardo, her powerhouse singing and dancing as her Anita. Her much-talked-about resilient reaction to the attempted sexual assault scene gives the movie a layer of added power it needed.
There are a few flaws to the film that are pretty standard. (There are a few spoilers here, so you may want to skip this paragraph). Elgort’s Tony is a natural stiff character that Maria, Riff, Bernado nearly everyone else gets to play his character. The biggest one, though, has always been there. The theme of love overcoming hate plays off the fact that after knowing Tony for one day, she ignores the fact that he killed her brother. So, let’s recap this. Maria met the guy yesterday. He kills her brother. Her natural reaction is to sleep with him. Oh, and then make her “almost” sister-in-law Anita go warn him the police are coming for him? I guess sociopaths need love too.
Spielberg makes it a point to have an entire cast representing Hispanic culture misrepresented in the original film. (Natalie Wood played the film version of Maria). However, many ignore that the Latinx community encompasses a wide range of cultures. This takes away the individuality of such rich cultures. Latinx represents Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, and dozens of others as one neutral characterization.
This is a step in the right direction. Though, it is essential to note that this is not an all Puerto Rican cast. Marketing the film as a correct representation since the cast is all “Hispanic” as correcting a wrong has its issues. The message being portrayed here is this is one large culture, which is incorrect. There is an immense amount of individuality that needs to be celebrated and understood. The need to raise cultural competence in Hollywood is still required.
Still, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a powerhouse. A masterful big-budget remake with bold storytelling choices that spares absolutely no expense. The remake of West Side Story proves you don’t have to overhaul a classic. You need to make a conscious effort to correct its wrongs and preserve its soul.