Movie Review: Spielberg or not, it’s still Sondheim and Bernstein’s “West Side Story”

Steven Spielberg opens his take on “West Side Story” on a construction site where New York’s famed West Side landmark, Lincoln Center, is under construction. It’s the mid-1950s, and he’s reminding us that the musical was capturing a moment in time, as Manhattan wasn’t just transforming ethnically. The neighborhood where this “Romeo & Juliet with Songs” is set was literally being torn down.

America’s most successful filmmaker brings back Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winning (EGOT) triple threat Rita Moreno, the breakout star of the 1961 film of “West Side Story.” Tony Kushner (“Angels in America,” “Munich,””Lincoln), adapting and modernizing “West Side Story,” created a new character for her and Spielberg gave this new character one of the signature songs from the iconic musical.

And what emerges from this “modern audiences” version, this recasting and resetting, is a “story” that brings us closer to Shakespeare’s tragedy of young love, the inspiration for the original show. If anything the new film, with its mostly-little-known cast singing the classic songs, packs even more of an emotional punch.

Whatever we’ve always taken from “West Side Story,” Spielberg makes damned sure we remember it’s heartbreaking. He’s always been good at stories with “heart” and movies that deliver tears.

But Spielberg doesn’t reinvent or even improve on the great Robert Wise film of 1961. It’s still a show that hangs on the lyrics of just-passed legend Stephen Sondheim. How do you improve on this?

“Maria! Say it loud and there’s music playing,
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.”

The new “West Side Story” gives us a dazzling new Anita, the role Moreno immortalized on screen. Ariana DeBose (“Hamilton”) sizzles in the part and pops off screen and takes over the movie.

Just. Like. Rita. If you’re casting a film with song or dance in it and DeBose is not your first call, get in another line of work.

Ansel “Baby Driver” Elgort doesn’t embarrass himself as Tony, the “white boy” who falls for Maria, even if he’s not looking at a record deal after this. Newcomer Rachel Zegler makes our winsome heroine Maria a convincing heartbreaker and showcases a lovely, light soprano singing voice.

Their lock-eyes-across-a-crowded gym dance floor moment lets us buy into their romance.

David Alvarez, as Bernardo, leader for the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks, has the build and machismo to be instantly credible as a tough guy with a little boxing in his background. But the Sharks/Jets gangs look even more like corps de ballet than the dancers from back in ’61 — lithe, athletic and fey.

That’s fine, as we remember even the climactic gang “rumble” always leans more on choreography than being credibly violent-looking. If you’re going for “reality,” casting real dancers as gang bangers is always going to trip you up.

An interesting wrinkle — I didn’t hear anyone refer to the character “Anybodys” by name. Iris Menas plays the character as more obviously transgender than the mere “tomboy” that came across in 1961. Kushner serves up fresh and frank gay-bashing abuse for Anybodys from the Jets, whom the police lieutenant (Corey Stoll) scathingly labels “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians.”

The “Dance at the Gym” dance-off is the first number that lets Justin Peck’s updating of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography truly shine.

“America,” Anita’s sassy, sarcastic ode to Puerto Rican reasons for moving from the island to the mainland, is still a show stopper and just as hilarious and politically pointed as ever.

“Immigrant goes to America,
Many hellos in America;
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico’s in America!

Be it 1961 or 2021, “West Side Story” still works.

The new “Story” is a little more visually razzle-dazzle oriented, as you’d expect. Extreme closeups, arresting camera angles, swooping shots that “open up” the big production numbers, using real streets to amp up authenticity.

If you’ve never seen the original “West Side Story,” you must’ve been living under a rock with the rest of Musical Haters Anonymous. And updated or not, I’m not sure Spielberg will reach a new audience with this. It isn’t “Hamilton.”

What Spielberg does for fans of the show and the film is create a new appreciation for what a towering, enduring achievement this musical is. I also came away with a new sense of awe at what Robert Wise was able to accomplish with giant, unwieldy film cameras on soundstages and a few perfectly-chosen locations sixty years ago.

Spielberg finds more grit and reality, even if there’s no improving on the show’s topicality or untoppable tunes. It’s a good film. Will families gather round whatever video streaming device extant to watch it 60 years from now, the way we have with the 1961 film? No. This “West Side” is good, not great.

But the joyous, moving and racially-charged show “West Side Story” has always been still makes this a must-see movie for the holidays and a worthy successor to a classic.

Rating: PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Iris Menas, Corey Stoll and Rita Moreno

Credits: Directed by Steven Spielberg, adapted by Tony Kushner from the musical by Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. A 20th Century release.

Running time: 2:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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