Spielberg's finger-snapping magic doesn't fail him with "West Side Story" remake
West Side Story
Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Rita Moreno, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, Brian D’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera and Iris Menas. Written by Tony Kushner, based on original stage and screen sources. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Now playing in theatres everywhere. 156 mins. PG
They don’t give out an award for “Most Audacious Film” at the Oscars. If they did, though, Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” would surely qualify.
It takes a director of his prodigious skill and confidence to want to put his stamp on this 60-year-old movie musical, which many people consider an untouchable masterpiece and which won a near-record 10 Oscars at the Academy Awards for 1961, Best Picture among them.
A love story set in the realm of 1950s New York slums and street gangs, ethnic white Jets vs. Puerto Rican Sharks, “West Side Story” was adapted from a hit Broadway show, inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” The peerless pairing of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim provided the music and lyrics for stage and screen.
Spielberg, who has never made a musical before, calls his version of “West Side Story” a “reimagining” based on his lifelong love of the story and songs. Getting it wrong would have been unthinkable for multiple generations of fans of the film and stage shows.
There was also the problem of the original film’s racial inequities: the dearth of Latin actors playing the Puerto Rican characters. Rita Moreno, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the sassy Anita, comes from Puerto Rico, but the lead acting role of lovestruck Maria was played by Natalie Wood, a white woman who required an offstage vocalist, Marni Nixon, to dub her songs. Such lack of diversity and representation wouldn’t be tolerated by audiences in a 2021 production.
Yet Spielberg triumphantly pulls it off, delivering a finger-snapping “West Side Story” that faithfully honours the past while energetically showcasing much fresh and diverse talent in a show that’s more in tune with the times.
Working again with Tony Kushner, his “Lincoln” and “Munich” screenwriter, he resists any temptation to mess with success by retaining the original songs and most of the story. Spielberg and Kushner went back to the roots of the 1957 Broadway musical, written by Arthur Laurents and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who also co-directed the 1961 film with Robert Wise.
The songs about love in a time of racial disharmony have as much impact now as they did 60 years ago, perhaps even more so: “Life is all right in America / If you’re all-white in America,” goes a lyric from “America,” the film’s signature song-and-dance by the Puerto Ricans.
With such strong bones as these to structure his film, Spielberg might have taken risks — or a misstep — with the casting. His instincts instead were to go with actors who could also sing and to have all the Puerto Rican characters played by Latino and Latina actors.
Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler make a smashing pair as lead couple Tony and Maria, who fall in love at first sight at a neighbourhood dance despite Tony being co-founder of the Jets and Maria being the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). It’s a romance as forbidden as the one between the feuding Montagues and Capulets in “Romeo & Juliet.”
Elgort demonstrates a maturity not seen in his previous films, while Zegler, not much older in real life than her 18-year-old character, makes for a convincing Maria, newly arrived in New York and completely guileless.
Both are excellent vocalists, handling the demands of such showstoppers as “Maria” (sung by Elgort), “I Feel Pretty” (sung by Zegler) and “Tonight” (sung together) with ease and making them both worthy of awards season attention.
The delightful Rita Moreno, who turns 90 on Dec. 11 and who played Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita in the 1961 film, returns in a new role adapted from an old one. She plays Valentina, the widow of Doc, owner of the corner store where Tony works and where Jets and Sharks hang out for mutually tense encounters. Also credited as executive producer, Moreno makes a big enough impression in her brief screen appearances that a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar, 60 years after her first win, isn’t out of the question.
Other casting highlights include Mike Faist (TV’s “Panic”) as Riff, brash leader of the Jets, and Corey Still as Lieutenant Schrank, the cynical cop who sympathizes with the xenophobia of the Jets, who fear the Sharks are taking over their asphalt and rubble turf. Yet Schrank also mocks them for being “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians.”
What doesn’t work in the new “West Side Story?” Not much, and it largely comes down to personal preference.
I’m not a huge fan of the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, a longtime Spielberg collaborator who favours desaturated colours and intrusive lens flares. I prefer the bright primary colours of the original “West Side Story” film, even though that film had an overall stagier look than this one, which also plays up the story’s theme of encroaching gentrification and neighbourhood destruction.
Other changes are more puzzling than vexing. Maria’s triumphant “I Feel Pretty” song-and-dance now comes after the winner-take-all “rumble” between the Jets and the Sharks, as it was in the Broadway original. Doing so after such a murderous event turns an upbeat number into a sad one.
And why does the rumble take place in a dull road salt depot rather than beneath the bright red spans of a highway overpass, as in the original film?
Perhaps the most controversial change from the 1961 to 2021 films is that Moreno’s character Valentina sings the preeminent Sondheim tune “Somewhere” solo rather than Tony and Maria as a duet.
It’s a poignant song of hope and yearning — “We’ll find a new way of living / We’ll find a way of forgiving” — that’s made all the more so by Sondheim’s recent death at age 91. Moreno acquits herself well, but it’s difficult to think of it as anything other than Tony’s and Maria’s tune.
The end credits has the dedication “For Dad,” meaning Spielberg’s late father Arnold, who evidently loved “West Side Story” and who died at age 103 in 2020 while the movie was in production. The family purchase of the original cast album was regularly played in the Spielberg home.
But really, Spielberg intends this new version of the stage and screen classic to be for everybody, old fans and new ones, and that’s the best thing about it.