‘West Side Story’ Review — Spielberg’s Musical Remake is a Stunner

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West Side Story Review

When it was announced that there was going to be a remake of West Side Story, the general reaction was a chorus of theaters nerds screaming in harmony, “Oh, hell no!” Then it was revealed that the great director Steven Spielberg would be helming the remake, his first musical, and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tony Kushner would penning the screenplay and those protests quieted down. Plenty remained skeptical, but you’d be a fool to assume that Spielberg couldn’t pull off what seemed impossible. Well, dear reader, Spielberg pulled of the impossible as his West Side Story is a winner, deftly balancing a vibrant homage to the 1961 musical while also updating elements of the story that it’s a much more clear-eyed version of the story that truly grapples with inherent racial tensions at play.

In New York City in the 1950s, the city is undergoing some massive changes. Old tenement buildings are being razed for a new wave of gentrification. Those that remain in the changing neighborhood are poor whites and Puerto Rican immigrants. The racial tensions between these two groups forms in the ongoing feud between the gangs the Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). The police, including Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) attempt to keep the peace to little avail. At neighborhood dance, the tensions continue to escalate as the Jets and Sharks attempt to one-up each other on the dance floor. Former Jets leader and recent parolee Tony (Ansel Elgort) arrives at the dance where he meets the young Maria (Rachel Ziegler), the younger sister of Bernardo. The two fall for each other in an instant, but their quick union only escalates the tensions between the two gangs as they’re hurtling closer and closer to a big violent rumble.

Spielberg delivers dazzling sequences in his first big musical production. He really walks a fine line here. In some sequences it seems as if he’s just trying to recreate some of the sequences from the original film. In others, he radically restages scenes and injects them with a whole new vibrant energy that eclipses Robert Wise’s acclaimed film. Spielberg picks out the best elements of the 1961 original and then radically recontextualizes them thanks to a very thoughtful screenplay by Tony Kushner. I wouldn’t dare call this movie “woke” but it takes a story that has withstood the test of time and updates its political viewpoints to better reflect our current understanding of race, class, and gentrification in America without badgering the audience with overt, plodding social messaging.

This new cast of West Side Story, more often than not, deliver fantastic performances, complete with pitch perfect tune and enchanting dance sequences. Newcomer Rachel Ziegler is mesmerizing as Maria, exuding the youthful vulnerability of her character with a graceful tenderness. Supporting actors David Alvarez and Rachel DeBose as Bernardo and Anita, respectively, are also major standouts, with the latter delivering the film’s most powerful performance. For much of the film, DeBose is the film’s main spark, and this is apparent in the number “America,” where she leads a stunning sequence that captures the dreams of the young immigrant’s new home. And then, later on, when things take a turn for the worse, DeBose brings the emotional wreckage of the racial strife and violence that haunts the viewer. Other standouts in the cast of West Side Story include Mike Faist as the fatalistic delinquent Riff and Oscar-winner Rita Moreno as Valentina.

In what might be the best example of Steven Spielberg’s incredible talents of a filmmaker, West Side Story might feature the acclaimed director’s most egregious example of poor casting and yet the film still works wonderfully. Ansel Elgort is just a non-factor in West Side Story. Not only is the young actor upstaged by every other actor on the screen. He’s even upstaged by the costumes and sets. These wistful sequences where Rachel Ziegler is pouring her heart out in song brimming with raw emotion are incredible when you realize that she’s sharing the screen with an actor just incapable of matching her intensity, let along even just conveying a bit of emotion. Whatever you think of Elgort as a person, and this is not the space for me to inject my thoughts, the simple fact is he’s not that good of an actor and is undoubtedly the weakest part of West Side Story.

West Side Story isn’t the best movie I’ve seen all year – hell, it’s not even the best musical I’ve seen all year – but its charms are impossible to deny. All the classic songs composed by Leonard Bernstein and the recently deceased Stephen Sondheim are there and, with the aforementioned exception of Elgort, are expertly performed by a genuinely impressive cast. From a purely visual level, West Side Story has Spielberg working at the height of his powers, with lush colorful costumes and meticulously crafted sets that recreate the New York of yore. I know there’s a kneejerk reaction to any news when it comes to remaking a classic film, but successes like West Side Story illustrate why we need not worry that somehow a new version will somehow be an affront to well-established classics. West Side Story doesn’t’ diminish the original and will probably draw more people towards the classic. The lesson of West Side Story’s tale of star-crossed lovers is about the pain caused from hate and the cycle of violence it creates. The other lesson of Wise Side Story is much simpler: Never doubt Steven Spielberg.

West Side Story
  • Overall Score
4

Summary

Despite a completely lackluster performance from Ansel Elgort, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story still manages to be a dazzling musical remake thanks to a legendary filmmaker working from a fantastic script as well as a stellar cast, including major standouts in newcomer Rachel Ziegler and Rachel DeBose.

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