Reel Reviews | West Side Story

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

A classic, Oscar-winning film gets an update thanks to filmmaking legend Steven Spielberg in, West Side Story.

When reforming leader of the Jets, Tony turns up at a school dance to support his friends, he spies the lovely Maria (Rachel Zegler) across the dance floor.  Maria sees Tony as well and they meet under the stands for a dance.  Unfortunately, Maria is the brother of the rival Puerto Rican gang to the Jets, the Sharks.  The infatuation between the two young lovers threatens to tear apart both gangs and everyone around them.  Can these two star-crossed lovers find a way someday, somehow?

With a screenplay written by Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich) based upon the stage play by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins that was loosely based upon Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story stars Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Corey Stoll Brian d’Arcy James and Rita Moreno.  The remake is directed by legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Sixty years ago, directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise debuted a movie based on a stage play that eventually won 10 Oscars out of 11 nominations.  The movie, West Side Story, won Best Picture awards at not only the Oscars but several other award organizations in 1961.  So the question begs when the original was such a phenomenon, why would master filmmaker Steven Spielberg be compelled to re-create such a masterpiece?  For Spielberg, it was a passion project of his to get the Latin roles correct.  In the original., Natalie Wood, a white woman, played the Puerto Rican Maria.  George Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrants, won an Oscar for portraying Bernardo, Maria’s brother and leader of the Sharks. Spielberg thought he could fix it.

Fix it, he did.  Every Puerto Rican role was played by an authentic Hispanic, most of whom were Puerto Rican except for the new Maria played by Rachel Zegler, a woman of Colombian descent.  Spielberg even allowed the actors to speak Spanish in the film without subtitles in respect to the need for them to have their own discussions.  Even without subtitles though, the acting is strong enough to communicate the emotions and allow the audience to understand what is being said.

Well, if the correct casting was the goal of Spielberg, he achieved it.  However, being the master that he is, Spielberg didn’t stop there.  While he went almost shot for shot in his recreation, Spielberg updated dance moves, improved costumes, and colors.  The most masterful stroke was getting Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the first movie, to return to this film playing the role of Valentina, the wife of Doc from the first movie.

Just like Moreno in the first film, Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita in this version, is marvelous.  DeBose, who we last saw in The Prom, is loving and intense.  She delivers an inspired performance as Anita that rises above the petty emotional blather between Tony and Maria from the second act forward.  The character construction calls for intensity and DeBose is perfect.  She sings she emotes, she shines.  She is simply the best.

Rachel Zegler is very good in her debut performance.  She has an immature, naivete that is perfect for the role.  She has a voice like an angel and looks to boot. Zegler is a breath of fresh air and wonderful in this role.  Cultivated by a great director, it is hard to believe that she is not a more veteran actress.  It is even more amazing what she does in her acting when paired against the work of Ansel Elgort who lumbers unimpressively through his part.

Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking, West Side Story is a masterful recreation of a classic film.  It is unnecessary and yet at the same time, the appropriate presentation of a classic story to a generation that may have never experienced the original. Surely Sondheim was pleased when he saw this.   Kudos to the master Steven Spielberg for pulling this off.

West Side Story is in theaters. 

Grade:  A