Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” elevates the grandeur of the 1961 masterpiece to new heights with unrelenting conviction and graceful execution.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” the movie is set in the 1950s on the West Side of Manhattan, a place that is undergoing rapid gentrification. As such, luxury apartments are being built in the neighborhood, displacing long-time white residents and incoming Puerto Ricans in the process.
Meanwhile, a turf war is brewing between two rival New York street gangs: One of them is the Jets, the white gang led by Riff (Mike Faist); the other one is the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). At the center of their conflict is the forbidden romance between Riff’s best friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort), and Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler).
Spielberg’s version works with the same music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. However, in the new movie, actors sing the songs themselves. Whereas in the original film, professional singers dubbed the actors for most of the songs.
In terms of screenplay, Spielberg has collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner to come up with a reimagined script. What emerges in the end is a film anchored in factual events, including the destruction of the low-income populace and the construction of Lincoln Center. Simply, it radiates an aura that feels genuine — not stagey altogether.
Besides, Kushner has managed to breathe new life into the main characters with more compelling dimensions. For instance, Maria can now make more autonomous decisions, allowing her to evolve into a strong young woman. Tony, despite his impassive nature, is truly an emotional young man who can now easily relate to his qualms of conscience.
Rachel Zegler attends the LA Premiere of “West Side Story.” (Getty Images)
Zegler, who was just 18 years of age during filming, delights with a fierce determination and a beautiful voice. On the contrary, Elgort, despite his lack of powerful vocals, impresses with dramatic gravitas, nevertheless. Together, the electrifying chemistry of the two leads is palpable beyond belief, exuding a passion that brings special life to their scenes.
Fans of the original film might recall a candy store owner named Doc. In Spielberg’s movie, that character is now Valentina (Rita Moreno), Doc’s Puerto Rican widow who has lived in the neighborhood most of her life.
Moreno’s screen appearances are brief, but they make an indelible impression leaving you in awe — especially with her interpretation of “Somewhere,” a song that Tony and Maria sang as a duet in the 1961 film. The iconic Oscar winner is utterly sublime as she embodies a character, who becomes the fulcrum of the movie, bridging the gap between Spielberg’s take and the 60-year-old original film.
Ansel Elgort attends the New York Premiere of “West Side Story.” (Getty Images)
The dance scenes, choreographed by Justin Peck, are massively infectious, spilling out into the streets with refreshingly new movement and supreme verve. Their exuberance will leave you breathless as they capture the essence of the moment.
With Spielberg’s adroitness behind the camera, the filmmaker’s first musical flows naturally from one scene to the next; and every frame comes alive with eye-catching clarity, seamless execution and wondrous effect.
In all, Spielberg has outdone himself this time with an irresistible musical that is bound to be timeless.