News of a remake of the iconic, incomparable West Side Story had many worried but the announcement that it would be filmmaking royalty Steven Spielberg tackling the legendary musical alleviated the worries slightly. But still, remaking such a perfect film is no easy feat, but we are delighted to say that the new iteration of West Side Story is a smash hit, a wondrous musical that does very little wrong.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner change little of the original story; the gang war between the Jets and the Puerto Rican immigrants, the Sharks, rages on in New York City. Caught in the middle are Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort), two lovers who meet at a dance, but their forbidden love soon has devastating consequences for the whole neighborhood.
The film begins with a sweeping shot of the neighborhood being torn down in favor of newer apartments, addings to the central conflict of the Jets and the Sharks. Regardless of who wins in the turf war, there is barely any turf left and that will be gone soon too. Time is running out for everyone in Spielberg's West Side Story. Spielberg's take is stylish and strong, the filmmaker effortlessly staging several musical numbers, showcasing a natural talent for spectacle and utopia, but with an intriguing mix of realism. The world of West Side Story is real and while it's perhaps a little more energetic and lively than our own grim reality, this is a complex world where there are consequences and weight to the actions of our characters.
Spielberg rights one of the original film's biggest sins; whereas the original 1961 film used makeup to darken the skin tone of the actors to appear more Puerto Rican, including Rita Moreno who is indeed Puerto Rican, Spielberg casts Latinx actors for the parts of the Sharks. Ariana DeBose shines bright as Anita, one of the meatier roles in West Side Story. She is fierce, loyal, playful and vulnerable and is matched by David Alvarez's Bernando. The two share wonderful chemistry and their dynamic and strong performances are West Side Story's highlight.
But the one issue Spielberg doesn't even attempt to fix is the problem of the main characters themselves, Tony and Maria. While the original West Side Story, both film and the stage musical, are near perfect, the biggest issue has always been that Tony and Maria are a tad bland and everyone around them is much more interesting and dynamic. Elgort especially, although a strong vocalist, fails to inject his Tony with even a hint of personality. Zegler does marginally better, but Maria is mostly reduced to a pining woman, without any ambitions or motives of her own.
West Side Story is still wildly entertaining, heartbreaking and timely. It's grand filmmaking on an epic scale and Spielberg once again proves he can do anything, being a true master of his craft. This is a worthy remake, one that respects and complicates the original work. Full of life, West Side Story is an unmissable cinematic experience.
West Side Story is in cinemas December 10.