Undertaking a remake of any of the iconic 1960s musicals was always going to be a daunting task, especially when there’s not necessarily the demand to fix what just ain’t broken. “The Sound of Music”, “My Fair Lady”, “Oliver”, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” are all such beloved entities that people just don’t want reimaginings of them, which in a way is strange because they’re based off stage plays which are reproduced all the time! In saying that though, I wouldn’t consider “West Side Story” in that same category. After I watched the 1961 version I can remember reading Roger Ebert’s review, where he named it one of his “Great Movies” and stated that it “remains a landmark of musical history”, and wondering why… It certainly wasn’t one of the staples of the family video box growing up and I can’t imagine it really being one for other families in the same way that those earlier films I mentioned would be.
The story itself is famously based off Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, substituting the Capulets and Montagues for the New York gangs the Jets (white New Yorkers) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans). The musical itself just isn’t one of my favourites, although I find Stephen Sondheim to be a bit hit and miss in general. I find a lot of the music itself to be somewhat flat and not especially memorable (especially the romantic numbers like “Tonight” and “Maria”) and the love story itself to be a little annoying. That being said, the appeal of “West Side Story” for me is the spectacle; its the colours, dance sequences and the dichotomy between the white New Yorkers and the Puerto Ricans which really lends itself to working so well on stage. And who better to bring spectacle to screen than Steven Spielberg!
It’s really the dance sequences that make this production special. Of particular note is the dance at the gym, where Spielberg has made a deliberate artistic choice with the costumes to show the division between the rival gangs; the white New York women are all wearing cooler blues and whites, while the Puerto Rican women are in contrasting reds and yellows and burnt oranges. The back and forth and the flurry of skirts is visually incredibly striking and continues throughout the film, particularly with “America”, which is an example where Spielberg has diverted from the original, which is undeniably a fun number, by ramping up the scope and bringing the scene out onto the street and thereby allowing the crowds to create a dance routine on a much grander and visually more impressive scale. Its these sequences which bring the film life and vivacity, because unfortunately, a lot of the solo numbers just don’t have that same appeal and really slow down the momentum of the story. “Something’s Coming” for instance is so durgy and boring that if I ever watch this at home I’d happily skip through it, but again, that’s not Spielberg’s fault, that’s just the play itself.
Performance wise, this is a seriously strong group of actors and have all been cast beautifully. Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita are particularly impressive, the former being so strikingly beautiful and endearingly innocent with the latter bringing the required strength, sass and sex appeal that was so striking in Rita Moreno’s performance in the 1961 version and her well deserved Oscar. Ansel Elgort and David Alvarez also deserve credit for their roles as Tony and Bernardo respectively. As for Rita Moreno returning in this version as Valentina, a reimagined version of the original character Doc, I think it actually works quite nicely and brings a maternal influence to the boys, who really are barely more than children and shows the tragedy of the fact that their own mothers or fathers haven’t been there for them. It was also a nod to the original which didn’t feel forced; Moreno still has a strong stage presence and the creative decision ultimately benefited the film.
Apart from being a master story teller, there is something so visually captivating and moving about Steven Spielberg’s productions. Spielberg’s interpretation of “West Side Story” is a knock out. Even though there are elements of the musical itself which I still don’t necessarily enjoy, Spielberg has taken the strongest parts of the stage show and made them the focal point of the film. It’s exciting and spectacular, and one of those rare instances where a modern take has done the source material real justice and brought something which may not have been seen otherwise to a whole new audience.
By Jock Lehman