March 20, 2023

Film review: ‘West Side Story’ reimagining will be a crowd-pleaser

Spielberg stays true to the tale, but makes important updates


Two questions have been dominating the discussion of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”

The first: Is it any good? The answer is yes.

The second: Why did Spielberg feel the need to reimagine “West Side Story,” and did he succeed in this reimagining? This answer is more complicated.

“West Side Story” was originally a 1957 Broadway musical and then a 1961 movie that came from four undisputed geniuses: choreographer Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Spielberg considers “West Side Story” as “arguably the greatest score even written in the theater” and says that he grew up memorizing the words to every song. And he says the story remains culturally significant with a central premise — that love transcends prejudice and intolerance.

In press notes for the film, Spielberg says “West Side Story” is even more timely today than it was in 1957. “What it’s about is what we are living in this country today — a time of tragic division and distrust, and the waste of human life through violence, racism and xenophobia. And even though the story is a tragedy, like all great tragedies, including ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘West Side Story’ suggests that hope can be born amid devastation and despair.”

Spielberg’s justification for the remake, however, leads to the ultimate question: Does Spielberg succeed, and if so, how?

The answer is yes, he does succeed, and what you are going to read next is an argument for this answer.

First, the original “West Side Story” movie adaptation reflected the biases of its time — to a fault. The casting of Natalie Wood, a non-Hispanic, as the newly arrived immigrant Maria, was an all-to-familiar slap in the face to Latino performers.

In the new version, all of the Latino characters are played by Latinos — and they’re actually young folks with bright futures ahead of them in musical theater.

Rachel Zegler makes her screen debut as Maria, and she was raised in New Jersey, the daughter of an American father and a Colombian mother. She will be one of the first Latinas to star in a live-action Disney film, the upcoming live-action remake of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which will begin production in 2022.

Her singing abilities in the new “West Side Story” will blow you away, and she’s no slouch as an actor, either.

Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita, is known for her role in as Disco Donna in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” In the new “West Side Story,” she leads one of the most enthusiastic set pieces in the film: the singing of “America,” which includes fiery dance moves. In the original, the scene takes place at night on a rooftop. In the new film, It unfolds in the streets of the Puerto Rican neighborhood, San Juan Hill.

The scene culminates at an intersection, where the entire neighborhood turns out for a block party. It took more than 10 days to film, and the result is a rousing cinematic spectacle.

And then there’s Bernardo, played by David Alvarez. In the original, George Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrants, played Bernardo. Alvarez, a Latino actor from Montreal, oozes machismo in the new movie, and he’s currently working on the Showtime series “Rust,” based on “American Rust” by Austin’s Philipp Meyer.

And if that’s not enough of an argument, then consider this: Spielberg and his team transform the role of Doc the druggist and turns it into the widowed Valentina, who’s played by the legendary Rita Moreno, the original Anita in “West Side Story.”

Rita Moreno plays Valentina, the owner of the corner drugstore, in "West Side Story." Credit: Walt Disney Studios
Rita Moreno plays Valentina, the owner of the corner drugstore, in “West Side Story.” Credit: Walt Disney Studios

Not only that: The new movie gives her a central show-stopping tune that crystallizes the play’s themes of hope and despair. It is inconceivable that she won’t be nominated for an Oscar — a fitting honor for the 90-year-old dynamo. (She won an Oscar for the original Anita.)

Other differences of note: The original stage version of “I Feel Pretty” takes place just after the Rumble between the Jets and the Sharks, and the audience knows what has happened between Bernardo and Tony. But Maria does not.

Sondheim never liked his lyrics for “I Feel Pretty,” and Pulitzer Prize-winner screenwriter Tony Kushner agrees somewhat, saying that he often wondered “where a Puerto Rican teenager might have picked up this frothy Anglo palaver.” So Kushner changes Maria’s place of employment from a bridal shop to the late-night cleaning crew at Gimbels department store, featuring displays that are chic and pretty and witting and bright.

As Kushner says, in the new version, Maria resents the witty, pretty people she has to clean up after. So Kushner says Maria’s rendition of the song shows that it is simultaneously parodic and playfully participatory.

It’s also important to note that Kushner makes the cultural context of the original musical more explicit: It’s happening as underachieving children of European immigrants (the Jets gang) battle with the recently arrived Puerto Ricans (the Sharks) as their neighborhoods are being torn down for revitalization. So their battle over territory is doomed from the beginning — since both groups will be pushed out amid gentrification. And if this isn’t as relevant today as it was in the 1960s, then you haven’t being paying attention.

One word of caution is necessary. As Tony, the doomed Romeo of “West Side Story,” Ansel Elgort makes a valiant effort at being lovestruck and melodious. But recent allegations of sexual assault, which he denies, regrettably complicate one’s reactions to him as Tony. Spielberg couldn’t have foreseen this complication, but it exists nevertheless.

It’s unlikely that this will hold back the critical adulation that is assured for “West Side Story.” Spielberg is doing something wonderful: He is introducing the great musical to a new generation. Yes, there will be naysayers. But they’ll be in a distinct minority.

“West Side Story” opens Dec. 10 nationwide.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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