For better or worse, filmmaker Steven Spielberg remakes the Oscar-winning classic West Side Story for his first movie musical.
It’s been over 24 hours since watching the film and I’m still in the process of digesting my thoughts. By the time this review runs on Thursday morning, I’ll have stepped foot in the exact location where the film’s opening takes place. But hey, I’m not complaining as I’m in the Big Apple for multiple studio events. If you ask me, Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time so when it comes to Spielberg films, I will not lie that I have a bias going into them. He’s Spielberg so you expect nothing but the best. Make no mistake that West Side Story is going to get both critical acclaim and a lot of awards love. But at the end of the day, the thing I keep going back to is this: how necessary is it to remake one of the greatest musicals of all time?
That this film is necessary or not is the shadow hanging over the movie. You can’t not think about the original film while viewing because it’s impossible. Look at the casting decisions. Instead of Doc, they have Doc’s widow, Valentina, having taken over the shop. Wisely, they go with Rita Moreno. You really can’t cast anyone else in this situation. While it would have been nice to see Russ Tamblyn or George Chakaris make a cameo appearance, you couldn’t make a new West Side Story without Moreno. For what it’s worth, Chakaris also won an Oscar for his role as Bernardo. No guarantee that David Alvarez will do the same but he’s just as solid in the film.
As much as it pains me to see yet another remake instead of original content, the film corrects the Oscar-winning classic’s flaws. It’s a major plus to the Spielberg version of the film. For starters, Spielberg goes for authenticity in casting. We all know that Natalie Wood could never get cast in this film–not as María today. Even as I still mull over whether or not this film is necessary, there are plenty of phenomenal performances. Rachel Zegler delivers a star-making performance. We’re going to see her for some time to come. Meanwhile, Ariana DeBose is one of the shining lights in the same role that won Rita Moreno an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Put it this way: this role could very well win DeBose an Oscar. She’s nothing short of phenomenal in a role that gives her more work than Schmigadoon earlier this year.
This film pits residents of two adjacent Upper West Side neighborhoods, Lincoln Square (Jets) and San Juan Hill (Sharks). Basically, we’re west of Broadway from West 60th Street to West 70th Street all the way to the Hudson River. In the opening scenes, it’s being pointed out that the area is being demolished to make room for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
My last viewing of the original movie came during this year’s TCM Classic Movie Film Festival. As such, I’m not in the best position to compare shot selections and such. But my G-d, there’s no denying that the music is great because it already was great. Thank you lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein, and playwright Arthur Laurents. Jerome Robbins’s choreography is still at the top of its game. Again, the original musical is one of the greatest musicals of all time. The original idea in 1949 pitted an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family against each other in the Lower East Side. This changed to two gangs: newly arrived Puerto Ricans and the working-class descendants of European immigrants. Funny how things can change in a few years!
This is the thing I keep going back to: is Steven Spielberg adapting West Side Story because he has something to prove. He could make any film in the world. Spielberg could easily bring another Broadway show to the screen for the first time. At the end of the day, he chooses to remake a classic during an era filled with remakes, reboots, and sequels. You’re getting exactly what you’d expect from a Spielberg film: nothing short of greatness. But again, we’re already going into a film that we knew would be great because the original–casting and makeup aside–was already great. I think it’s more a case of Steven Spielberg proving to himself that he can direct a musical. Believe me when I say that Spielberg can do no wrong here even when he’s remaking an already great film. However, I still have my reservations.
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
SCREENWRITER: Tony Kushner
CAST: Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andrés Rivera, with Rita Moreno and introducing Rachel Zegler
20th Century Studios will release West Side Story in theaters on December 2, 2021.
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