West Side Story review: Spielberg does it again


There are a few classics in movie history that you think no one will ever dare to recreate. West Side Story was one of those. Mainly because it is one of the most famous movie musicals ever and because the story is set in the 1950s, which at the time of the original film were only 10 years past. But exactly 60 years later, the time has come and none other than Steven Spielberg has given the film a different and even better look.

1950s Romeo and Juliet
The outline of the story hasn’t changed much from 1961. In 1950s New York, more and more Puerto Ricans arrive in the city to start a new life. A group of white boys, the Jets, are not happy with this and target the Sharks, a group of Puerto Rican boys who want to claim their place in New York. In the midst of that rivalry, Tony (Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver ), the co-founder of the Jets, and María (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks, fall in love. Their relationship only adds fuel to the fire, causing the two groups to fight it out by force.

Admittedly, I didn’t really see the point of a new version at first. That’s why I also looked at the original version before writing this review because it had been a while. And it must be said, quite a lot has changed, making it certainly not a superfluous film. Apparently, this West Side Story is more like the Broadway musical in some respects. Perhaps that’s why the historical setting was preserved, because the film is still set in the 1950s.

That sometimes felt strange to me because you don’t have to have completely the same context to get the same message across. People are still emigrating to New York and that is nothing new these days. But that does not mean that some people no longer have problems with it, and so the story could be a little more modern. The identity and situation of a certain character, Anybodys (Iris Menas), has been made more relevant and modern, but that clashes with the setting. In addition, certain choices made by Mary are no longer as believable today as they may have been in the past.

More authentic than the original
On the other hand, a West Side Story with smartphones and modern teens might not have worked either. That’s the only thing I can say about it. Tony Kushner ( Munich , Lincoln ) wrote the script from scratch based on the musical. He creates better-formed characters while making the story much more authentic at the same time.

The Puerto Rican characters’ dialogues have many more Spanish phrases and words than in the original. It feels more natural, especially for those new to New York. On the press vision that I saw, the film was not yet subtitled and I thought it was quite an advantage, for example, that I studied Spanish, so that I could get some things along. It will reportedly not be translated into English subtitles either, so maybe not into Dutch either. But it is not that you will miss large pieces because of this.

The cast also reinforces that more authentic feeling. All Puerto Rican characters are now really played by actors with Latino roots. For example, in the original, María was played by Natalie Wood, who was of Russian origin, and Bernardo by a Greek actor. That is really an improvement. They also chose lesser-known faces, who can really sing and dance. And they also look a lot more their age than they did back then.

Ansel Elgort has been a bit of a controversial figure lately , but as an actor I like to see him in action. In terms of singing and dancing, he is also not inferior. Newcomer Rachel Zegler has a really fantastic voice and for me makes the role of María much more loveable than in the original. They also have good chemistry together. In addition, there are also Broadway stars such as David Alvarez, who was one of the youngest Tony winners for Billy Elliott, and Mike Faist, who became famous for Dear Evan Hansen .

A special role is played by Rita Moreno, who plays Anita in the original. She plays a character that didn’t exist at the time: she is both a mentor to Tony and a Puerto Rican at the same time, which also puts her between two fires. She does get some nice scenes though. The biggest star for me is Ariana DeBose, who sings, dances and acts like crazy. Some songs have also been sung live on set and you can really see that at certain moments, but not in a bad way. It just comes across much better.

West Side Story, the cinematic version
Spielberg has still not lost his touch. Thanks to him, West Side Story is much more cinematic than the original film. At times it looked more like a stage than a film, for example with impossible transitions or unnatural lighting. Here we are much more often in real locations and there is much more color to see. The costumes, especially those of the women, are also really beautiful. Permanent cinematographer Janusz Kamiński also provides some beautiful shots. Yet there is a kind of gray filter over some parts that fits less well.

The choreography, also completely redone by Justin Peck, is very impressive and adds quite a bit of energy to the film. The locations are also often different than in the original. The music remains by Leonard Bernstein but was adapted by composer David Newman. He kept Bernstein’s typical style well, but also sometimes made it more modern. Some of the songs of legend Stephen Sondheim are now immortal and therefore only adapted where necessary. Those who are not used to his songs will sometimes have to get used to the style.

It’s quite special that this film will hit theaters just after Sondheim’s death, allowing a new audience to get to know this musical. The film has not become shorter and with its 2.5 hours it is still quite long for a musical. But the story is captivating and everything around it even more so. And despite my doubts as to whether the new version was necessary, Spielberg still manages to make something that was already solid even better.