West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards in 1961 and its original stage musical from 1957 is still beloved by many people. Its classification as a classic stems from its Romeo and Juliet storyline, unforgettable songs, iconic choreography and has provided a strong base for hundreds of musicals since.
This begs the question: do we need another West Side Story? Admittedly Natalie Wood’s performance as a Latina has not aged well, however, most of its other elements has withstood the problematic parts of the day. However, evidently, director Steven Spielberg sees something many millions haven’t and attempts to justify this reimagining of the classic for release in the 21st century.
The story’s setting in post-war New York is unchanged however from the first aerial shot of the upper west side, there is something that feels fresh about this remake. Spielberg’s huge vision and sense of grandeur that the original film didn’t have. The war between the white gang, the Jets, and the Puerto Rican enemies, the Sharks, feels dynamic and punctured by incredible set designs and space to feel the context of the action.
In this rendition, Ansel Elgort plays Tony, a former Jet looking to put his past behind him. That is until he meets Maria, played by newcomer Rachel Zegler at a dance and reignites a war between the competing gangs. With a definitive all-out rumble between the gangs the only considered way to end the war over the turf, Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist) is determined to get Tony back on board. From here, the standard plot of love, tragedy and loss plays out on screen.
Initially duller in the colour palette, scenes burst with colour during dancing sequences and come to life thanks to the stunning performances by the cast. However, Spielberg doesn’t overdo its sequences other, rather reliant on the angles and feel of older New York gang movies. This prevents the standard feeling of musical films that span from the high drama and action to the more mundane narrative moments, bringing strong consistency and emotion through the story.
The film belongs entirely to Zegler, the newcomer whose natural performance as Maria is pitch-perfect in every regard. Unfortunately, Elgort brings little to Tony, struggling to hit the higher notes and entirely mismatched with Zegler’s soaring voice. His lack of emotional expression or energy leaves a sour taste for fans of Tony in past iterations.
The best part of the film is when Spielberg decides to make the film his own. Putting Somewhere in the hands of Rita Moreno, the original Anita in 1961, a widowed owner of Doc’s Drugstore, is a smart and soulful inclusion that bridges the gap between the past and present, merging all feelings into one stunning scene. Anita herself is played by Ariana DeBose, who owns the role with thrilling energy and taking Moreno’s original performance to the next level. Having proved herself in multiple roles on stage and television in recent years, DeBose owns each moment on screen.
Ultimately the film is a marvel to watch and experience. Spielberg is the best in the business and he brings gravitas to this tale. It feels full circle, coming 60 years after the last film. Hopefully, it works to bring new audiences to the story and is the project that births the star that is Rachel Zegler.