Steven Spielberg’s latest film “West Side Story” is an exhilarating musical film which I gladly watched after one particularly exhausting day. I must confess that my physical condition was not that good when I watched the movie during last evening, but it did not take much time for me to be galvanized by all those terrific moments in the film, and I really enjoyed and admired how Spielberg and his cast and crew members bring a considerable amount of fresh energy and spirit into their very familiar materials.
As many of you know, the movie is the adaptation of the classic Broadway musical of the same name, which came out in 1957 and then made into the successful Oscar-winning film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1961. Although it was not entirely without flaws, the 1961 film, which won no less than 10 Oscars including the one for Best Picture, is still packed with a number of awesome things besides Leonard Bernstein’s terrific music, Stephen Sondheim’s dexterous lyrics, and Robbins’ electrifying choreography, and these timeless elements compensate a lot for its several notable weak aspects including the serious lack of chemistry between its two leading performers Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer.
Mainly because of the weak aspects of the 1961 film, there has always been the possibility of improvement and modification via the remake version, and I am happy to report that Spielberg did a fantastic job of presenting those musical moments with sheer technical confidence and prowess. While the 1961 version will certainly come first as usual, the 2021 version often does its own things with more realism and verisimilitude, and it helps that it is constantly buoyed by the strong performances from many of its relatively unknown cast members, who ably imbue the movie with a heap of youthful vigor and emotional intensity.
Although the story, which is basically the modern reworking of that certain romantic tragedy of William Shakespeare, is not exactly the strongest aspect of the film, the adapted screenplay by Tony Kushner improves the original story to some degree while also accentuating its social/historical aspects more than the 1961 version. As reflected by the very first scene of the film where the camera hovers over the gentrification process on the shabby neighborhood of the West Side area of Manhattan, the mood becomes more serious and realistic, and some timeless social issues including race, immigration, and gun control are organically incorporated into the story. In addition, the conflict between the Zets, a Caucasian gang group, and the Sharks, a Latino gang group, is depicted with a lot more menace and danger even though it is accompanied with Bernstein’s music and Robbins’ choreography, and we also come to sense some despair and desperation from both sides as reflecting more on how the world inhabited by these two groups will be gone sooner or later due to the ongoing gentrification.
Above all, the movie soars whenever it presents a musical scene as expected. Thanks to Spielberg and his top-notch crew members including cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar, we surely get a more visually interesting and effective presentation of several famous songs including “Tonight”, and I especially enjoyed how they present the “America” with much more cinematic touches compared to the 1961 version. The movie also surprises us as using a few other songs including “Cool” under curiously different contexts, and that certainly brings more fresh air to the film.
During its second half, the movie loses its narrative pacing a bit as heading toward its predictable finale, but it still engages us as before with some interesting modern touches involved with gender sensitivity. For example, the tomboy character in the 1961 film is now presented as a tougher transgender character, and a certain key scene later in the story is coupled with more sexual brutality and some female perspective.
Amidst these and many other rich stuffs in the film, the couple at the center of the story feels rather generic, but its two leading performers do their respective tasks fairly well on the whole. Although Ansel Elgort is one of the weakest elements in the film for being as banal and colorless as he was in “Baby Driver” (2017), he and his co-star Rachel Zegler, who actually sing their songs in contrast to Wood and Beymer in the 1961 film, click better with each other than their counterparts in the 1961 film, and Zegler constantly outshines her rather bland co-star as being on a par with Wood’s natural warmth and beauty.
In case of the other main cast members in the film, most of them are not so familiar to us, but I am sure that their respective careers will be boosted a lot by their spectacular works here in this movie. While Ariana DeBose, who will definitely receive an Oscar nomination for her colorfully ferocious supporting performance, is the most memorable one in the bunch, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, and Iris Menas are also quite good, and Rita Moreno, who incidentally won an Oscar for playing DeBose’s character in the 1961 film, has her own little poignant musical moment later in the movie.
In conclusion, “West Side Story” is a commendable remake equipped with its own style and mood to distinguish itself from the 1961 version, and it is definitely another superb work in Spielberg’s long and illustrious filmmaking career. Although it has been more than 45 years since his first theatrical feature film “The Sugarland Express” (1974), he is still a great filmmaker willing to try new things, and we can only hope that he will keep going on as usual during this decade. In short, this is the best musical film of last year, and it will surely remind you of what cinema really is.