I have a lot of thoughts about Steven Speilberg’s remake of the classic, critically acclaimed, Best-Picture winner West Side Story. I’ll start by saying this is easily the best movie I’ve seen this year, but I have so many questions. Let me start by saying I’ve seen the 1961 version hundreds of times, and it scores a 9.5/10 in my books. The original musical brought together some of Broadway’s most outstanding artists, including composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and this new, budding lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Rest In Peace).
In case you don’t know, the story is about two gangs engaging in territorial battles over a few blocks in Manhattan. These few blocks are to be torn down to build Lincoln Center. The Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), represents the last remaining poor Irish neighborhood kids and the Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), protect the Puerto Rican immigrants living there.
Racial tension reaches a boiling point when the Jets challenge the Sharks to a rumble. Meanwhile, the former leader of the Jets, Tony (Ansel Elgort), returns after a stint in prison and wants nothing to do with the gang. During an altercation at the school dance between the gangs, Tony sees Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), from across the room. Love blooms, but this is Romeo and Juliet, of course, and their love comes with life-and-death complications.
“…this is Romeo and Juliet, of course, and their love comes with life-and-death complications.”
Why Did We Need A Remake?
With minor exceptions, Spielberg’s West Side Story is not much different than the 1961 version. So why was it made? For the same reason that Disney has been producing live-action versions of their animated classics. It’s a way to correct the cultural problems of the original. In this version, the Puerto Rican characters and community are decidedly Puerto Rican and cast entirely by Latino and Hispanic actors. In Tony Kushner’s screenplay, much of the Puerto Rican culture and struggle is brought to light to add flavor and history to the storyline. Speilberg and Kushner went to great lengths to garner approval from the Puerto Rican community. In the end, the cultural flavoring works in creating a richer story.
Was He Even Trying?
Again, West Side Story is not that far off from the original. The choreography, music, and orchestration are almost identical to the original film and Broadway production. Except for the song “Cool,” the narrative structure remains intact. Is the greatness of West Side Story derived from the source material or Spielberg’s cinematic genius?
The answer is both. Even a community theater version of the musical will be better than most. In the hands of anyone competent, it’s almost impossible to screw up. But there are bits and pieces of Spielberg (and his team) sprinkled from start to finish. For example, in the opening number, as the Jets are causing trouble on the Sharks’ turf, New York elements play throughout — including the street they walk down, the cars in traffic, and dark alleyways. It’s all integrated beautifully in song.
Hats off to the veteran Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski. The entire film is gorgeous, and the “balcony” scenes on Maria’s fire escape are shot in undeniably cinematic ways. The editing is top-notch too.
"…is not that far off from the original."