Steven Spielberg’s first musical a bold, fresh, spectacular take on th…

Steven Spielberg’s first musical a bold, fresh, spectacular take on th…

“West Side Story” — ★ ★ ★ ★

The master has remastered a masterpiece!

No movie could be a greater gamble for filmmaker Steven Spielberg than his joyously bold and revisionist take on the beloved 1961 musical typical “West Side Story.”

That seminal production, directed by both Broadway legend Jerome Robbins and master-of-all-genres Robert Wise, shot on gritty New York locations instead of Hollywood soundstages, wound up becoming the highest grossing movie of 1961, winning 10 out of 11 Academy Award nominations.

Anita (Ariana DeBose) and her boyfriend Bernardo (David Alvarez) dance up a storm with friends in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story.” – Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Spielberg and his filmmaking team (including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a Columbia College Chicago grad) have produced a dramatically musical means here.



They keep the original chassis intact, but upgrade it with new fenders, roof and hood in the form of more multicultural sensitivity, greater character thoroughness, sharper dialogue (from Tony Kushner) and the clever rearrangement of familiar songs in a different order to unprotected to an astonishing fresh relevance.

An extended opening part immediately telegraphs that this will not be your grandparents’ “West Side Story.”

Giant cranes and wrecking balls stalk a desolate, bombed-out 1957 cityscape where two teen gangs called the Jets and Sharks (the former whites, the latter Puerto Ricans) include in a futile turf war in the wake of oncoming gentrification.

It’s a typical faceoff between two gang leaders Riff (Mike Faist), left, and Bernardo (David Alvarez) with former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) stuck in the middle during “West Side Story.” – Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Young gang members working out their feelings in dance take on a rawer, Gene Kelly-esque muscularity here, employing Justin Peck’s energized choreography.



Mike Faist plays Jets leader Riff with psychopathic squinting eyes, something like a dangerous city version of Scut Farkus from “A Christmas Story.”

A decidedly older-looking David Alvarez plays Sharks leader Bernardo, a raging bull of a boxer who sees racism in all things around him, and he’s rarely wrong.

The romantic leads, Maria and Tony, are a heart-melting associate played by charismatic, doe-eyed Rachel Zegler and a cool, reserved Ansel Elgort. (Cool, at the minimum, until it’s time for Tony not to be cool, then prepare to be wowed.)

In most integrated Hollywood musicals, characters would break into song without anyone around taking notice.

Not here.

Tony (Ansel Elgort) has his life changed by a chance meeting with a Puerto Rican teen in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” – Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

When Tony meets Maria at a high school dance (captured in a dreamy getaway under the bleachers), the moment mutual allurement kicks him into his upper range to sing “Maria,” an enchanting performance pleasantly reacted to by young girls and older women in windows as he passes by. (seemingly, New York contains more Marias than Tony imagined.)

Make no mistake, this wild “West Side Story” improves upon its 1961 predecessor in every department.

Elgort’s explosively intense Tony buries Richard Beymer’s blah style, just as a self-actualized Zegler outshines Natalie Wood’s more passively innocent Maria. (Plus, Zegler didn’t need Marni Nixon to sing her songs.)

Every scene, every song, every dance explodes with big and small enhancements that make this “West Side Story” uniquely Spielberg’s.

“Cool,” originally a cautionary tune from Ice of the Jets, becomes a struggle between Tony and Riff fighting for control of a loaded revolver that prominently figures into the story later.

Instead of a one-room faceoff between Puerto Rican men and women, the soaring “America” takes to the streets as a jubilant, all-community musical showstopper.

Valentina (Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 “West Side Story”) owns the diner of her late husband, Doc, in Steven Spielberg’s ambitious remake of the typical movie musical. – Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The most meaningful change offers 89-year-old Rita Moreno, who played the 1961 Anita, transforming the duet “Somewhere” into a heart-rending solo as the weary widow of the local diner’s owner, Doc.

Many, many other clever touches and emotional embellishments should keep for viewers to discover for themselves.

During the climax of “West Side Story” a terrible thought gripped me — that this movie might end on a dark observe much more faithful to its source material, William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” than the stage musical ever dared.

Braulio (Sebastian Serra), left, Flaco (Ricky Ubeda) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) strut their stuff as members of the Sharks in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” – Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

That the movie suggested this as a definite possibility illustrates how Spielberg has pulled off a grandiose, artistic coup.

He has taken one of the greatest and most well-known movie musicals in history and transformed it into something that feels new, instinctive and real.

• • •

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Other: A 20th Century Studios/Walt Disney Company release. In theaters. Rated PG-13 for language, smoking, suggestive scenes, violence. 156 minutes


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