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'West Side Story' Review

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December 11, 2021
Hunter Friesen
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Leave it to Steven Spielberg to make his first outing into the musical genre one that completely crushes the competition. Like The Mad Titan Thanos, Spielberg has seemingly made it his mission to collect the stones of nearly every genre known to cinema. Throughout his nearly fifty-year feature film career, he’s already conquered monster movies (Jaws), science-fiction (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), adventure (Indiana Jones), war (Saving Private Ryan), and biopics (Schindler’s List & Lincoln). 

But before he takes on the Avengers-level threat of Netflix and other streaming services in the fight for the theatrical experience, Spielberg needs to claim the last stone that has eluded him: musicals. And after all these years (including a worldwide pandemic), The King of Entertainment can finally stake his claim with his remake of West Side Story

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have made it clear that this West Side Story is not a remake of the 1961 film, which won ten Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture. Rather, this is a new adaptation of the 1957 stage musical. Many might be confused as to why Spielberg felt the need to readapt such a timeless piece of entertainment, especially with the 1961 film being heralded as one of the great screen musicals. The answer to that argument can be broken down into three parts.

First, Spielberg may be humble, but like all great directors, he has a bit of hubris and isn’t afraid to remake sacred material, as he’s already done with 2005’s War of the Worlds. Second, Spielberg has cited the musical as a foundational piece of his childhood, so much so that it was one of his key inspirations for becoming a director. And third, while the 1961 version may be a monumental feat, it is far from perfect. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original Broadway production's book, spoke to the New York Times in 2008 about his feelings towards the film version, which he thought was very flawed due to “bogus accents, bogus dialect, bogus costumes.” Laurents’ argument against the costumes may be puzzling, but he’s right on target with how the film whitewashed much of the characters. 

Spielberg’s West Side Story looks to right the wrongs of the past, as nearly all of his Puerto Rican characters are played by Puerto Rican or Hispanic performers. And to do this, Spielberg hasn’t committed the sin of nearly every modern musical adaptation where big movie stars are cast instead of the performers who brought the characters to life on the stage. Apart from Ansel Elgort (who, while still being the film’s wet blanket, is not as bad as one would expect), all of the cast members come from some sort of theater background. 

Ariana DeBose, who played a featured part in Hamilton both off and on Broadway, takes over the role of Anita with a fiery passion. Playing her overprotective partner Bernardo is David Alvarez, one of the original Billys in Billy Elliot. Mike Faist, who originated the role of Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, harnesses a special jittery vulnerability as Riff. 

And then emerging as the star of this troupe is newcomer Rachel Zegler as María. The world may have already gotten a glimpse of Zegler’s singing talent through her YouTube channel, but this is a true showcase of what she has to offer. Since production wrapped in September 2019, Spielberg has claimed Zegler as the greatest María he’s witnessed. At the time, it sounded like the usual praise a director would heap on his own film. But now that the court of public opinion gets its say, it seems he was telling the truth. 

With so many stars in the making, Spielberg is able to harmonize the past and the present, making the remake feel like a Golden Age musical made with modern craftsmanship. Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski keep the same desaturated, high-contrast look that they have maintained for nearly three decades. The camera swoons and cranes in extended takes, capturing the incredibly choreographed dance numbers conceived by famed ballet dancer and director Justin Peck. The “America” (which has been taken down to the streets instead of the rooftop) and “I Feel Pretty” set pieces contain some of Spielberg’s greatest directorial work, with Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics proving once again why they have inspired so many.

But all the technicals and performances mean nothing if the story doesn’t match their excellence. Thankfully, screenwriter Tony Kushner has taken the original material and given it a new life. For the most part, this is still the same Romeo and Juliet story of star-crossed lovers caught in a war between rival gangs. But then, every once in a while, something unexpected will happen, taking things in a different direction. 

The narrative about the immigrant experience has been made more profound, with the Spanish dialogue - accounting for nearly one-third of the total spoken lines - going unsubtitled in a move that Spielberg and Kushner described as an effort to respect the language. And the character of Doc has been reimagined as Valentina, allowing Rita Moreno (the 1961 Anita) to ground the film with a heartbreaking final number. All of these revisions don’t come off as gimmicks needed to justify the film’s existence, just different (and better) ways to tell a classic tale. 

With The Great Musical War of 2021 coming to a close, Steven Spielberg has emerged as the predictable winner. Perfectly melding the work of Bernstein and Sondheim with the newfound talents of DeBose, Faist, and Zegler, the new West Side Story makes the case for why some remakes should be allowed to happen. Because sometimes, they can meet or surpass the original, such as how this one does by bringing classic cinema into the modern world.

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