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.