Like some, you may be asking why this classic was remade. Why would one of, irrefutably, the best directors of all time put his heart and soul into a remake when he could have given us an original film?! What on earth can Steven Spielberg give to or do for this film that wasn’t already done? I have been in your shoes. I wondered the exact same thing. Why touch “West Side Story?!” Makes no sense, right? I never saw the original, so I was coming from that angle, too. I thought, goodness gracious, another one?!
Then I saw it.
I know now why the first movie was so beloved. It has a powerful message. Now it has been remade by a movie God because, in this country, we are right back where we were when the original 1961 movie was made… except things are more intense. In 1961, a lot needed to be said about what people of a particular class were going through. The same thing needs to be declared today but add to it race, and it’s getting worse all the time. Though this is the case, no one is listening. Maybe “West Side Story” can open some ears and eyes to the problem of division in the United States of America. That’s why the remake, or at least, that’s how I see it. You’ll get from it what you want to, of course.
In this version, the founder of the gang, the Jets, Tony (Ansel Elgort), falls for a Puerto Rican girl named Maria (Rachel Zegler). Her brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), a member of the Jets’ rival gang, the Sharks, isn’t happy when he finds out Maria has eyes for Tony, a gringo. But Tony has spent some time in prison after almost killing someone in a gang fight and learned some things about himself. His eyes have been opened to his old racist ways. He extends his hand in friendship toward Bernardo, which is immediately rejected.
Maria fears for Tony’s well-being. She worries her brother and his friends will kill him. Though she longs to see the young man, she hopes, for his own good, that he’ll stay away.
At this point, we’ve been treated to several songs and dance numbers which get more and more exquisite. The choreography is remarkable and the set direction; impeccable. Spielberg didn’t change the era, so you see and feel the grit of the New York slums these gangs are fighting over. Sound design helps with this, as well. I swear I was watching an old movie.
Anyway, when Tony and Maria are on screen together, everything is soft and gentle, innocent and sweet. And they are the others equal. Sadly, they also know what time it is, metaphorically speaking, and that they cannot be with one another as things are. Tony, not one to listen to what others tell him to do, goes looking for Maria.
Elgort singing “Maria” in the streets as he dreams of his treasure is a pleasure to watch, especially when one spy’s the other. Their eyes meet and hearts pound when she steps out onto her stoop. She shoos him away, knowing and hoping that he’ll resist. Then the pair sing the wonderful ballad “Tonight” together as they stare into each other’s eyes, and you crush right along with them.
Young love. How beautiful. But remember, this is New York in the ’60s. Things aren’t quite this easy.
Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) loves America, is happy to be in New York, and wants everyone to get along. How can it be that Bernardo has such hate in his heart?
He and Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the Jets, have met to plan a turf war; a rumble… winner take all. Some of the scenes are a bit melodramatic, even farcical, but it feels as if Spielberg wanted them to be. If you think about it, the average person is practically glass. One splinter and they can crack under pressure. You see that happen here, in a rather entertaining way. Bernardo can’t stand how he’s seen through the eyes of the white man. He is a proud Puerto Rican and wants to be treated with respect. Riff sees Bernardo as a change to his way of life… and he doesn’t want change.
Through dance and song and watching Rita Moreno’s ‘Valentina’ do her best to make the neighborhood a better place, one hoodlum at a time, the story unfolds. It was mystifying watching her scene with the new version of her old self, though it was heartbreaking seeing her age show, especially in a close-up of her hands. That said, she still has it.
The ending is spectacular. As a young woman who has lost her entire world, Rachel Zegler really brings it. In a heartbreaking scene, touching, she demonstrates her anger at the world and the problems that won’t let love flourish. She was once separated from Tony by a balcony. Outstanding cinematography gives you the experience almost first hand. Now Maria and Tony have been separated forever by disdain and revenge. Maybe we can all learn something from her pain. Who knows? Hopefully, it won’t take a second reimagining to find out.
*For full effect, see this sensational film on the big screen as it was meant to be seen. Grab the popcorn and soda, too. At two hours and thirty-six minutes, you’re going to want to settle in comfortably.
West Side Story
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Rita Moreno, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Corey Stoll, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Iris Means, Brian d’Arcy James
Rating: PG-13 (Some Strong Violence|Brief Smoking|Strong Language|Suggestive Material|Thematic Content)
Running Time: 2h 36m
Genres: Musical, Romance
Release Date in Theaters: Dec 10, 2021
Producers by Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum
Distributed by 20th Century Studios