Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ new, not original

Rick's Reviews

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The bottom line for the Steven Spielberg version of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning “West Side Story” is that it is a haunting story dealing with the deadliness of extreme bigotry delivered through a memorable collection of award-winning tunes and stylish choreography. It’s not a shocking statement the film is of superb quality because Spielberg has set the standard for excellence in film.

The real question is why the much-heralded director would feel like it was necessary to do a new version knowing the 1961 film took home 10 Oscars including being named Best Picture. Spielberg has taken the original stage production and 1961 film and massaged it with some modern film trickery and did some manipulating of the story to produce his version.

Except for his tweaks, Spielberg has created a film that does not have enough new material or cinematic vision to call it a remake or a reimagining. It is nothing more than the product of a man with so much Hollywood clout, he can make any film he wants even if it means following the original blueprint too closely.

“West Side Story” is the classic Romeo-and Juliet-esque tale of star crossed lovers. Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) falls madly in love with Tony (Ansel Elgort) when their eyes meet across a crowded dance floor. It is a forbidden love as her Puerto Rican family has tried to protect her from the “gringos” of the world.

Their love is not to be denied even when two gangs – the Sharks and the Jets – are ready to rumble to stake claim to the dying piece of New York that is being consumed by the modern world’s need to grow.

Spielberg was handcuffed by the simple fact that he is making a film based on a much heralded stage production that included book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Spielberg’s only options were to stay close to the source material or take a new look at the same story but through a different lens.

A modern touch would have allowed for the core of the story to remain firm. There’s no question that the bigotry that is such a driving force in the original stage show and film continues to exist a half century later. The classic tunes could have been given a new beat. And while the choreography by Jerome Robbins in the 1961 film has an anger to it that supports the film, dance has progressed a lot since then and other styles could have been embraced.

But Spielberg took the safe approach. He called on Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and Grammy Award winner Gustavo Dudamel and Academy Award-nominated composer and conductor David Newman (“Anastasia”), who arranged the score. Tony Award winner Justin Peck choreographed the musical numbers in the film.

How they responded to Spielberg’s safe direction results in a production that finds its melodies In the streets of New York, its emotional beats from the young lovers and a fiery passion displayed through skillfully designed dance sequences and beautiful musical renditions of such tunes as “Tonight,” “America” and “Maria.” But, it works because it worked a half century ago.

There are slight variations in the music, dance and cinema style. The problem is that Spielberg’s “West Side Story” resonates so closely to the previous film that the final product is going to be good without trying. You copy a winner and the odds are high the copy will be a winner.

Spielberg’s biggest contribution to the “West Side Story” legacy is a better approach to casting. It was easy to fall in love with Natalie Wood playing “Maria” in the 1961 film but Zegler brings beautiful vocals to the film and a personal heritage that includes her mother being of Columbian dissent.

The race issues are difficult to watch despite the production being set in the ‘50s. At least Spielberg looks to have made the effort to get heritage in mind during the casting.

Speilberg’s shining moment is having Rota Moreno – the award-winning actress who starred in the 1961 film – not only take on a role in the new film but also serve as an executive producer. She’s not only a bridge to the past but a tent pole for the new version.

These are smart moves but not enough to make the Spielberg’ version of “West Side Story” feel that much different from the 1961 film. If you have not seen the earlier version, the new one will be a treat. Those who have seen the original could find the film too encumbered by the past to have its own future.  The saving grace is that Spielberg will get a lot of praise that’s being reflected back more from the original film than being its own cinematic beast.

Movie review

West Side Story

3 stars

Cast: Rita Moreno, Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, Corey Stall

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13 for violence, language, smoking.

Running time: 156 minutes

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