Although it lacks an Overture and an Intermission, Steven Spielberg’s rendition of 1961’s West Side Story flows well and does the story justice. Remakes are tricky things, you know. Stay too close to the source material and you end up with the line for line, shot for shot weirdness of Gus Van Zant’s Psycho. Stray too far from it and you discover something experimental and head scratching, like Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. West Side Story is in the middle of it all. It’s the same story you know and love, just taken from some new angles. I just wish the supporting cast hadn’t overshadowed the leads. My Aunt was a huge fan of the original, and I like to think she might have appreciated this one. It was worth catching it on the big screen back in December, and as of this writing, West Side Story is now available on Disney Plus and other streaming networks.
West Side Story is basically Romeo and Juliet, with two rival gangs (the Jets and the Sharks), fighting for territory in a battered New York City. When Tony (Ansel Elgort) meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), sparks fly between them, but it sets the stage for a dangerous confrontation between both gangs.
West Side Story marks another Spielberg production that doesn’t have John Williams at his side. While it saddens me that the two aren’t working together (and let’s face it, having just celebrated his 90th Birthday, Williams has easily earned a well deserved rest), the music for the film is in great hands. Originally composed by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the music was handled by David Newman (Serenity) this time around, at Williams’ recommendation. One thing to learn here if you’re new to movies – David Newman is part of the Newman family of musicians that includes Thomas Newman (Wall-E, The Shawshank Redemption and just about any film Sam Mendes made), Randy Newman (Toy Story), and Alfred Newman, who created that 20th Century Fox fanfare you used to hear when watching Star Wars. Things remain mostly unchanged for the songs that were in the 1961 original, but there’s one additional piece (at least to me, anyway). “Somewhere” is sung by Rita Moreno’s character, rather than the leads. Not every song is exactly the same as the original (and it really shouldn’t be), but it’s very close. The only quirk I really had was for my favorite song, “Officer Krupke”, which changes things up just a little. It should be noted that everyone on screen is signing here, whereas in the original, it was mainly George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn who sung their own parts (something I only learned just now in writing about this). I loved the whole element with Riff getting whacked over the head with the newspaper. Every other song has some magic to it, and with Janusz Kaminski as Spielberg’s Director of Photography, there are some fantastic uses of the camera in many shots. Guillermo Del Toro recently raved about the dance sequence, and it’s a great sequence. Sometimes, it’s also the subtle moments. My favorite comes in “A Boy Like That”. In the original, there was a glass door with a blue, yellow and red glass paneling. Spielberg still showcases the color pattern, but with the drapes instead. It was a cute homage to the original, I felt.
I also enjoyed what Tony Kushner did with the script. There’s a lot of Spanish in the film that’s given without any subtitles at all. I’m not sure if that was his decision or Spielberg’s, but for the most part, the feelings are clearly conveyed, whether you can understand what’s being said or not.
Writing is usually supposed to be without bias. I believe the sexual assault allegations against Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) affected West Side Story’s success, somewhat. At my 7pm showing back in December, there weren’t many seats taken up for the film. That, or perhaps musicals aren’t as popular as they used to be (used to be being only a month prior with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick Tock Boom!). Add to that a Pandemic we thought we were slowly breaking out of only to discover a return with renewed fervor and what could have been gigantic just didn’t seem so. My own biases were in part to blame for not writing about this movie sooner. I didn’t hate the film by any means – I really enjoyed it – I just didn’t want to throw in to the whole cancel culture that screamed “This person did bad things, smite him from our film and shun them from our memories.” (though I suppose by adding this, I am doing just that). Whatever the case, Elgort’s Tony isn’t terrible in any way. Based on his performance in Baby Driver, he would have been my go to pick as well. I just didn’t feel as much for the character as I thought I would, knowing that I found about the actor. Tony’s the only character in this one where I felt they could have swapped in a CGI Richard Beymer and it would have worked fine.
The opposite could be said of Zegler. She has an incredible voice and screen presence, and fits into Maria so well that you might forget you’re watching actors on screen. I hope to see her do more in the future (and while we’re on that topic, let her sit in at the Oscars. What’s one more seat, anyway?)
From top to bottom, West Side Story is stacked with a mix of veterans and young talent that we hope to see more of in the future. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original, returns a Doc, the owner of a store (which also makes a nice connection to the previous film). Brian D’Arcy James (Molly’s Game) is on hand as Officer Krupke. Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) plays Lt. Schrank, and that’s about the bulk of the adults you’ll run into other than teachers and the like. For the Jets and Sharks, we have Maddie Ziegler (who is Sia’s Muse) as Velma. We also have Mike Faist as Riff and David Alvarez as Bernardo, who were just fantastic. It is an absolute shame that either actor didn’t gain some kind of recognition during the award season. Thank goodness that at least Ariana DeBose (Hamilton) portrayal of Anita is getting some love. She lights up every scene she’s in, whether it’s dancing or showing grief. She’s my pick for Best Supporting Actress this year, though that position is stacked with some strong nominees.
Overall, West Side Story was a surprise for me. Spielberg hits the right marks, and I feel you can sit it next to Wise’s production. Whatever mood you happen to be in, you can pick one and enjoy. The supporting cast may overshadow the leads, but not so much that it ruins the film.