West Side Story review: Spielberg’s spectacular remake almost matches the original
The new version of the classic musical falls just short of the first film – but it’s still a stunningly entertaining spectacle.
Depending on how you look at it, remaking a stone cold classic like West Side Story is either an open goal or a poisoned chalice. On the one hand, with a tale this timeless and songs this indestructible, it’s hard to imagine how a filmmaker could possibly go too far wrong. But then again, when a near-perfect, universally adored version of something already exists, how exactly can it be improved?
Well, when your name is Steven Spielberg you can do pretty much whatever you want, and it's a testament to the great director's talent that he almost pulls off the impossible: this West Side Story doesn't quite top the original, but it's still an exhilarating, stunningly choreographed spectacle that includes some interesting deviations from the previous version and will make huge stars of several cast members.
Spielberg's first good choice is perhaps the most obvious improvement on Robert Wise's 1961 classic. While so much about that first adaptation is undoubtedly magical, the casting of white actors wearing skin-darkening make-up to play Puerto Ricans is clearly unacceptable when viewed through a 2021 lens, and the Sharks are this time made up entirely of Hispanic performers. Not only that, but from an early number sang directly to the Jets onwards, we regularly see these characters speak un-subtitled Spanish, and the result is that the depiction of this community is more vivid and detailed than in the original film.
This is one of many ways in which the film is slightly updated to reflect more progressive times – another example includes the expansion of the role of Anybodys, who is more overtly shown to be trans, while Tony Kushner's script also does more to highlight the issue of gentrification.
We've seen a plethora of movie musicals this year – from the fairly disastrous (Dear Evan Hansen) to the enchantingly bizarre (Annette), but none of them have had dance numbers as well staged or as thrilling to watch as those on offer here. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Spielberg is able to adapt his considerable skills to the movie musical – who can forget the splendid opening to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, after all – but it's nonetheless hard not to delight in just how much he gets right, how well he can reimagine such iconic scenes in new and original ways. And this being a Spielberg film, it should also go without saying that it is profoundly cinematic throughout –the production design is consistently gorgeous, and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is at the top of his game, even if the colours in this version don't pop quite as much as they did in the original.
It's at its best during its biggest, most energetic numbers – which are staged with real invention, often taking place in different locations than the original and thus managing to avoid direct comparisons. For my money, the standout is America, which instead of being performed on a contained rooftop set, spills out onto the street and unfolds as a colourful carnival led by the superb Ariana DeBose as Anita.
Other selected highlights include Gee, Officer Krupke, which this time takes place in a police station waiting area and is every bit as witty and fun as the original, a montage during the second rendition of Tonight which is expertly put together, and the more visceral showdown between the Sharks and Jets, which swaps the stylised violence of the first film for something more brutal. Meanwhile, the climactic tune Somewhere is given an interesting twist that might take some by surprise but which it's difficult not to be moved by.
Some numbers hew slightly more closely to the familiar, notably including the first rendition of Tonight between Tony and Maria – even if Ansel Elgort does a fair bit more clambering around on the stairwell than his predecessor Richard Beymer. Although the filming of this scene is more inventive than the straightforwardness of Wise's version, I think it loses some of the raw romanticism, not helped by the fact there's a slight absence of chemistry between Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort – the film's weakest performer. Beymer himself was never the standout of the previous version, but he was certainly better at selling the romance than Elgort, who only deviates from his rather bland and one-note performance during a misjudged piece of overacting towards the film's conclusion.
Thankfully, those around him are almost universally terrific. Zegler is a revelation in her first major role, but it's Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist as Anita and Riff that really steal the show, both of them brimming with natural charisma and surely putting themselves firmly in awards contention. And then there's Rita Moreno – who famously won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 version, and who this time takes on an expanded, gender-swapped version of the character Doc, now called Valentina. Moreno, now 89 years old, is given the chance to be both funny and soulful in what is a deeply touching performance.
Spielberg has been repeatedly insistent that this West Side Story is not a remake of that aforementioned version, but rather a new adaptation of the stage play, but it's simply impossible not to compare the two films. And when put alongside each other, I don't think this quite matches its predecessor in terms of pure emotional intensity, while it also lacks the technicolor magic which made that version such a visual treat. It does, however, come far closer to equalling it than it had any right to – and should definitely go down as a major hit.