If ever there’s a filmmaker that deserves some benefit of the doubt it’s probably Steven Spielberg. The guy hasn’t necessarily had the greatest stretch in the last ten years or so but the man made Jaws dammit. Even the movies he makes that aren’t terribly inspiring like The Post or Ready Player One tend to be well made enough to be a good watch and even when he does strike out like with War Horse and The BFG the final movies end up at least being… kind of interesting just because you’re watching one of the most successful filmmakers of all time dedicating himself to a very bad idea. Despite this, I don’t think I’ve ever been more skeptical about the guy than when it was announced he would be making a remake of the 1961 Academy Award winning musical West Side Story. I’m not even the world’s biggest fan of the original West Side Story for a variety but I do recognize its status as a classic and doing a more or less straightforward remake of an acknowledged classic is kind of a losing game. Even if you knock it out of the park you’re probably you’re still kind of just going to be viewed as a usurper to the throne and everyone’s just going to spend all their time comparing whatever you did to the original. I could kind of give it some leeway since the original is itself a stage adaptation but the trailer sure made it look like a pretty direct take on what Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins had already done. What’s more, given that it was set to come out the same year as In the Heights this kind of looked primed to feel like the stodgy old version of western Manhattan next to the fresh new vision, but now that the movie has come out Spielberg seems to be having the last laugh because the film is being very well received.
The film opens with the sight of a wrecking ball tearing down tenements in the rapidly changing Lincoln Square neighborhood (then frequently called San Juan Hill) to make way for the Lincoln Center complex, a project they broke ground on about two years after the musical premiered and two years before the original film came out. This sets up a section of New York that is in flux and we are then introduced to the two gangs set to fight over what remains: the gang of second or third generation white immigrants The Jets, and the gang of newer Puerto Rican arrivals The Sharks. Currently leading The Jets is Riff (Mike Faist), a hot head who is extremely resentful that the neighborhood has been “taken over” by Puerto Ricans and that has led to clashes with Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). These tensions escalate at a school dance when a former Jet named Tony (Ansel Elgort) spots Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and is immediately struck by her beauty. It feels like love at first sight on her end as well, but the second Bernardo sees the two of them dancing he splits them up and storms out with Maria. Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) warns that the two of them could start “World War III” between the two gangs and the gang leaders start plotting to have a “rumble” that could well end in bloodshed.
So I should probably lay my cards on the table about the original West Side Story, which is a movie I have my problems with. My first exposure to it was in middle school when my Spanish teacher decided to take it easy for a few days and felt the musical was sufficiently close to the subject matter to work. At the time I thought it was “totally lame” because gang members singing and dancing in the street was a ridiculous concept to me at the time. Revisiting it as an adult with a more mature sense of musical conventions I was able to get over that but I still think there are legitimate problems with the movie. There’s the brownface aspect of course, that’s been an acknowledged blemish for a while, but beyond that I’ve never been the biggest fan of stars Richard Beymer or Natalie Wood as Tony and Maria and the slower ballad type songs between them never did much for me. Beyond that, while I can be more of an adult about the musical numbers some of the dance scenes in that first movie seem to go on endlessly and do tax my patience a little. Ultimately though personal preference only goes so far with something that’s this iconic, the film has certainly earned its place in pop culture regardless of my quibbles with it.
This remake follows the same basic story of the original film and includes most if not all of the same songs but the screenplay has been re-written by Tony Kushner in a number of ways. The dialogue has been re-worked, mostly for the better, and there a more knowing and 21st Century perspective on some of the underlying socio-political context of all this. It is not a coincidence that Spielberg and Kushner decided to start making this film about conflict between working class whites and Latino immigrants right in the middle of the Trump years and that particular dynamic definitely informs much of how this remake is written. Early in the film the Jets are established as a rather humiliated community of poor whites who still live in a ghetto that’s been increasingly populated by new arrivals and lash out at said new arrivals instead of their own conditions, while the Sharks are depicted as people defending themselves from this while also personalizing this conflict in ways that aren’t terribly productive either. I would also say that the movie fleshes out the romance between Tony and Maria in some useful ways; it makes Tony’s differences from his Jet comrades a bit more palpable and Maria’s own differences with her family a bit clearer and I would also generally say that Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are both generally more charismatic and authentic than their 1961 counterparts and have more chemistry generally. In the old movie I never cared for the slow songs between them, but I liked them a lot more here in large part because I was just more sold on the genuine infatuation between the two.
Where the film is less successful is in it rendition of some of the more iconic musical numbers from the first movie. The staging of “America,” probably the most widely remembered song from the first movie, seems to have the hardest time living up to its predecessor. Where the scene was a pretty straightforward Broadway style number in the first movie with two sets of Purto Ricans debating each other on a roof at night, this time it’s staged in broad daylight in the style of a golden age film musical as extras join in while people dance on the street. This is the one part of the movie that kind of does draw some unflattering comparisons to In the Heights which pulled this kind of thing off better and in general it feels a bit overblown and out of keeping with the style of the rest of the film. The film also kind of botches its handling of the song “cool,” which is moved to an earlier moment before the rumble and lacks a lot of the jazzy aura that the first movie was able to achieve with the number. Other songs are shuffled around and re-imagined a bit more successfully. Setting “Gee, Officer Krupke” in a police station instead of the city streets is a nice switch up (kind of ridiculous that they still end with “Krup you!” at the end) and putting “I Feel Pretty” in a department store also makes sense.
This new adaptation does not entirely leave behind the theatricality inherent to this property; the film’s sets remain somewhat heightened, more like exceptionally large stages than truly naturalistic environments and I do think that’s at least partly by design. Across the board I’d say that the cast here works quite well, though some are a forced to live more in the shadow of their predecessors. In the case of Rachel Zegler this is beneficial as it’s not that hard to rise above Natalie Wood in brownface (though I will say Wood probably handles the film’s climactic scene a little better), though this works less well for Ariana DeBose, who needs to live up to Rita Moreno’s Academy Award winning turn as Anita and all involved might have been better served by departing a bit more from that version of the character. Mike Faist stands out quite a bit for his take on the character of Rif and I quite liked Josh Andrés Rivera’s new take on Chino. Ultimately though, no matter how much the film succeeds in so many ways, at the end of the day it still needs to overcome the “why did we need this” question, and while it does make a much more convincing case for itself than I expected I’m not sure it ever quite got entirely over that hill and to some extent I’m not sure who this is for. The people Spielberg’s age are never going to abandon that original film and I don’t necessarily see this thing being hip with “the kids” either. Personally I was interested to see Spielberg work at such a high level and was fascinated seeing how they handled the material but can’t help but think that they’ve put all this effort into something that will inevitably still feel like it lives in the shadow of that first movie. This is definitely worth seeing if you’re even a little bit interested but I don’t know what kind of legacy this will leave behind ultimately.
**** out of Five