It takes a lot of guts as a director to look at a movie that won Best Picture and say “I could do that better.”
Of course, when it’s somebody like Steven Spielberg saying it, there’s a good chance he’s not wrong.
It also doesn’t hurt that the movie he’s decided to take on is 1961 Best Picture Winner “West Side Story.” Between Broadway, community theater and every high school in America, this iconic musical has been staged roughly 400 billion times in the past 60 years, so it’s not like Spielberg is trudging into untouched territory.
So you can go into this knowing that at the very least Spielberg is going to give you a competent retelling of “West Side Story.”
The question then becomes, what else does he bring to the table? Well for starters, what was once an edgy, contemporary version of “Romeo and Juliet” as told through rival New York street gangs is now a vibrant period piece.
The biggest sin of the earlier version is the easiest to fix, as we have honest-to-goodness ethnic actors playing ethnic characters. No disrespect to Natalie Wood, but she’s about as Puerto Rican as a snowstorm.
Spielberg’s “West Side Story” has a much more cinematic feel with dynamic camera movements and eye-popping production design (although the saturated color palate of the original did make it a beautiful movie to behold).
Spielberg has also assembled an electric, fresh-faced cast that makes the movie crackle with energy. Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler have great chemistry as the doomed Tony and Maria.
The supporting cast really pops, especially David Alvarez who plays Maria’s brother and Sharks’ leader Bernardo, Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita and Mike Faist as Jets’ leader Riff.
The most inspired bit of casting though is bringing back Rita Moreno (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar playing Anita the first time around) as Valentina, owner of the drug store and Tony’s kind-hearted employer. Don’t be surprised if she’s nominated for Best Supporting Actress again in 2021.
The choreography is a joy to watch and the songs are just as terrific now as they have ever been (and Spielberg smartly shuffles the placement of some of the songs in the film). It’s sadly poetic that “West Side Story” returns to the big screen just days after the death of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, whose career began by writing the lyrics to this musical to the music of Leonard Bernstein.
The 2021 version of “West Side Story” isn’t breaking any new ground, nor is it tarnishing the memory of what came before. Instead it’s more like an old piece of jewelry that’s been plucked from the shelf, polished and buffed to where it shines as brightly as it ever did. And man, oh man, does it shine.
“West Side Story” is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.