When you first hear that a remake of West Side Story is on the cards, it’s: God, why? Why would anyone look at West Side Story, which won ten Oscars in 1961, and think: that needs doing again? Who would do that? Steven Spielberg, that’s who, and as it had garnered mostly five-star reviews before I’d had a chance to watch, the question became: how? What wonders might he have brought to a film that was great and beautiful in the first instance? Not much. It is more authentic. The back stories are more substantial. The singing and dance numbers are bigger. There’s a part for Rita Moreno, which is neat. But in being more so it is also peculiarly less so. Plus there is an elephant in the room. Two, actually.
The original brought together Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics, RIP), Jerome Robbins (choreography), Ernest Lehman (screenplay) and Robert Wise (director), while this has Spielberg and a new screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner. (Look! Another Jewish conspiracy!) The plot need not detain us as we all know, surely, that it’s a reconfiguration of Romeo and Juliet (with a fudged ending) that recasts the warring families as a white gang, the Jets, and a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Two star-crossed lovers, Maria and Tony, attempt to negotiate all the hatred, racism and violence while hoping that some day, somehow, there is a place for them, and now I’m going to have that earworm all day.
But back to the review, as the film is long (two and a half hours) and space is short. It is more authentic as this time out the Puerto Ricans are played by Puerto Ricans, and those of Puerto Rican descent, and not mostly white people in shoe polish. Similarly, Natalie Wood was a terrific Maria but hardly Latino.
You will thrill as the overture strikes up and Spielberg’s camera swoops and swirls above and below a slum landscape that is due for demolition and gentrification. (Spielberg wanted this version to be more ‘realistic’ and the scenery does look less like theatre sets.) The singing is, without exception, soaringly fabulous and the dancing, choreographed by Justin Peck, is athletic and exhilarating. The cast have muscles where I didn’t know you could have muscles. But ‘America’, so iconically performed by Moreno, has left that rooftop and is now a colossal ensemble number in the street. It’s impressive, but somehow loses any intimacy or rawness, as does the film generally.
Some of the cast are wonderful. Mike Faist (Riff), David Alvarez (Bernardo) and Ariana DeBose (Anita) are wonderful. They bring life to their scenes, gloriously. But there are two elephants in the room in the form of Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort as Tony, who are so bland they could be a Disney prince and princess. At their first meet-cute my bottom clenched in embarrassment. Tony is meant to have a dark past but can’t bring sufficient heft to make that believable while Zegler is pretty, oh so pretty, and looks pure in a white dress, but that’s about it. As for Moreno, she plays Valentino, a reimagined and expanded version of Doc, who owns the drugstore, and it’s magnificent she can bookend her career like this, but it always feels like what it is: a nod to the original film.
Apologies for always going back to the original but you can’t unsee what you’ve seen. I would add it never had a great script, possibly because, unlike most musicals, the music did all the narrative heavy lifting. And it’s the same here. Kushner doesn’t stand a chance against Bernstein and Sondheim and their magical team work. I suppose you could say that, whatever else, Spielberg has redefined West Side Story for a new generation, but the older generation? We’re allowed to be a bit grumpy about it.