I have a little podcast with my friend Conrado Falco called The Criterion Project where twice a month we talk about what is playing on The Criterion Channel (we actually talked about the original West Side Story here). As one of our regular topics each episode we pitch a remake of the film we are discussing. This can be very challenging as most of the films we are discussing are considered classics in one way or another.
The trickiest thing about a remake is how do you justify its existence? For example, we have projects like the 2019 remake of The Lion King which only addition was in the photo-realistic style that only detracted from the story rather than enhanced.
Now we have a new telling of West Side Story– an adaptation of the Broadway musical where the original film won multiple Oscars including Best Picture and 2 acting wins for Rita Moreno and George Chakris. How do you remake something so beloved?
Well, evidently the answer to that question is to assign the task to Steven Spielberg and hist team of professionals. I loved this new take on West Side Story and I think they took the right approach by treating it like a revival on Broadway. There are changes. Things are staged differently, songs are moved around and even sung by different characters but it still feels like an adaptation of the musical. Like I said, if I went to a revival of West Side Story on Broadway these are the kinds of changes and interpretations I’d expect. Still the same show but with a new flair.
As a whole the production is more workman-like than the original without the auteur feel of the Jerome Robbins choreography and Oscar winning cinematography and art direction. However, there are 2 ways this version far surpasses the original:
First, the chemistry between stars Rachel Zegler (in a stunning debut performance) and Ansel Elgort far exceeds the original’s Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Beymer famously hated the movie and was embarrassed by his performance (which is a little harsh but there was room for improvement). Maybe part of it is the new couple read as teenagers much more than the original. Who knows? Chemistry is a weird ephemeral thing and here they have it. The whole cast has great chemistry.
Second, the singing is a big improvement over the original. Zegler was discovered on youtube because of her singing and her voice is absolutely stunning. In the original all the singing is dubbed and while I support that choice if the actor can’t perform the songs well enough I prefer casting singers and that’s what they did in the 2021 film. Everyone sings beautifully in this film and for a musical theater fan like myself that added a lot to the experience.
Some people have criticized Elgort’s performance (I am aware his personal life leaves something to be desired) but I don’t agree. I thought he had great screen presence and sold the part of Tony very well. I also love the sound of his tenor vocals.. Moreno also gives a strong performance as the drug store owner Valentina. Her character exists as a kind of bridge between the Sharks and the Jets and that was an effective change.
I also enjoyed Broadway stars Ariana DeBose as Anita and Mike Faist as Riff. Spielberg’s longtime DP Janusz Kaminski does a good job playing homage to the original film but adding new insight. I particularly liked how they staged the final brawl in a salt warehouse. The actors pitched against the giant piles of salt was striking and memorable.
As a theater fan I enjoy going to see revivals just as much as new musicals, sometimes more. That’s how you have to look at this version of West Side Story. It’s a fantastic revival by a cast and crew at the top of their game. I loved it and can’t wait to see it again!
8.5 out of 10
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