Like many, I had my doubts when I heard that Steven Spielberg was directing a remake of West Side Story. First of all, the man has never taken on a musical. Second, West Side Story is already a masterpiece. How could he, even the great Spielberg, improve such a wonderful film? Long story short, he did. I don’t know what magic touch Spielberg has, but he has created a masterpiece out of a masterpiece.
This film does not deviate much from the 1961 classic. The story is the same, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet as rival gangs, the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks, clash and turn violent. The music, that sweet, beautiful Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is back and revived perfectly.
The few notable deviations from the original help modernize and make us realize just how much strife this community is in. First there is the addition of Valentinia, the Puerto Rican widow shopkeeper, played by Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita in the 1961 film. Her presence is a perfect addition and this time she’s not the only Puerto Rican cast member. Spielberg corrected that error and made sure to cast Latino actors to play the Latino characters. Then there is the way Spielberg portrays the neighborhood. The Sharks and Jets clash among piles of rubble and they all risk eviction as the neighborhood is being torn down to be rebuilt for wealthy people to move in. Valentino’s store is next to a demolished building, making the setting feel more desperate and war torn.
All the classic songs are back, but some have a new twist to them. I especially enjoyed Cool, happening before the rumble (where I think it makes better sense) in a tense and expertly choreographed scene where Tony tries to take a loaded gun from Riff and they end up in a dangerous game of keep away. The always delightful Gee, Officer Krumpke turns up the Jet boys’ antics as it takes place in the police station as the boys are awaiting questioning. And I Feel Pretty takes place at Maria’s job, cleaning a fancy department store after hours.
West Side Story is currently nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, cinematography, costume design, sound and production design. Steven Spielberg is nominated for best director, his eighth directing nomination. And Ariana DeBose earned her first nomination for her supporting role as Anita.
I’ll admit it, I went into West Side Story thinking no way Spielberg could improve such a great film. Within the first few minutes I forgot my apprehensions, and was swept away in the masterful beauty of this film. It felt like visiting an old friend, only it’s been a while and they’ve changed a bit. It was familiar and comforting and yet there were surprisingly beautiful moments through the cinematography, seamless editing and expert choreography. I think it’s easy to predict this film will easily be within reach of winning best picture. And I could see The Academy giving West Side Story that award, just to say that both versions of the film have won.
“All my life, it’s like I’m always just about to fall off the edge of the world’s tallest building. I stopped falling the second I saw you.”