Written by: Tony Kushner
Starring: Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler
When serving as another adaptation of a beloved story, there comes a level of audacity in the mere attempt, seeing as there needs to be some sort of justification. Whether it be updating it for the times or taking on a different approach that may lead to a more enriching experience. This re-tackling of West Side Story certainly takes the opportunity to paper over some of the more problematic aspects of its predecessor even if not all of them really stick.
In 1950s New York, amidst a shift in the population of individuals inhabiting it and corporate efforts to make the streets more appealing to upper-class individuals, a stark rivalry exists with two street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Their hatred for each other gets put to the test where an individual from each side falls for the other with things getting much more personal.
The ill-fated union of star-crossed lovers running all the way back to “Romeo and Juliet” has served as the backbone for this story as it mixes the danger of the relationship because of the larger rivalry involved. In this narrative, it exists on a racial level, certainly, but the new adaptation by Tony Kushner makes some intentional choices in the way he brings this story through a 21st-century lens. The rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks comes from more than just a war on territory and pure racism, but also the additional context of the socioeconomic stranglehold everything around them continues to place on these individuals. It, in no way, excuses the way the Jets act, but it adds larger context as to what drives these young men to stand their proverbial ground to what they see as threats. An intriguing insight, which further emphasizes the crafts on display and allows this feature to stand out.
From the alterations of the musical set pieces, this iteration of West Side Story demonstrates Steven Spielberg sure can create something supremely magical as a filmmaker. Combining the wonderful production and costume design as well as the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński creates such a spectacle, which usually does not get associated with the musical genre. The scene most encapsulating this comes from the reimagined “America ” scene where instead of it taking place on a rooftop, it goes down to the streets. An absolutely stunning sequence showing off the impeccable choreography on display. Seeing this on the big screen truly showed off this incredible feat, especially in the way it highlights actual Latine individuals in the Puerto Rican roles.
However, this remains the same story of West Side Story with all of the baggage it contains and some of the decisions taken by the screenplay do leave for quite an unconvincing progression of events. Having this story take place across two days, it makes all of the events feel incredibly rushed to a degree where the relationship between Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) just does not get the time to work. Perhaps it comes with the chemistry issue of Elgort just not matching the pure elegance of Zegler, but this relationship at the center of the movie just does not hold together and convinces why it beats out the horrific events happening around them. If you know the story, you know what this refers to where Maria forgives something almost instantaneously for a guy she literally met yesterday. None of it ever feels earned because there was no time to establish these two as a couple worth rooting for in all reality. It certainly also does not help when the central love story gets completely overshadowed by the insane chemistry conjured up by Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez as Anita and Bernardo.
Additionally, another comes in the form of adding Rita Moreno into this story. Truly a legend for what she accomplished in the 1961 feature and her addition had good intentions but it opens up larger discussions this film did not have the time to address. In this film, she portrays the Puerto Rican widow of Doc, who owned the shop where Tony worked and became a location focal point in the story. Having her in the narrative makes for some fun moments, but when the story keeps a heinous scene that occurs in her shop, it does make for quite the puzzling realization of her complicity in this rivalry between the gangs. A Puerto Rican woman spared from the racism of the Jets because of the man she married, which reveals an intriguing thread the film puts out there but never really touches upon. If this larger change needs to be made, the screenplay then needs to reckon with what it means in a larger sense.
All of these qualms can easily be forgotten because of the sensational cast assembled for this feature, simply dazzling within every second they appear on screen, except for Elgort. Just as with the 1961 adaptation, the person who owns the entire film proves to be the actor portraying Anita. Ariana DeBose absolutely astounds with her aura in this feature as she takes on the best arc of all the characters. It becomes impossible to take your eyes off her whenever she appears on screen as she proves to be such a triple threat, as required by the role. She very much stands out as the best thing this adaptation has to offer with others like Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez, and Mike Faist contributing tremendously as well. Almost radical to think casting individuals with musical theater backgrounds would do well in a film musical adaptation.
Pieced together as quite the spectacle, this new iteration of West Side Story has so much to admire, even with its glaring faults keeping it from me fully loving it. The craft on display, however, cannot be denied as the way Spielberg frames this story along with everyone else on this crew ensures it more than justifies its existence. If anything, it proves it would be silly for anyone to doubt Spielberg.