Friday, December 10, 2021


Opening this weekend:

West Side Story--The original 1961 film version of the 1957 Broadway musical has aged well, on the whole, but it has aged. The retelling of Romeo and Juliet in New York street gang dress still holds an audience beautifully, and the performances and numbers remain exciting, at their best electrifying. But the depiction of gangs can feel a bit quaint; the Jets, in particular, come across more like the Bowery Boys than like convincingly dangerous hoodlums, and the take on Puerto Rican culture is narrow. The dubbing sounds a little canned at times, and the orchestrations are over-symphonically lush.

That said, it remains a terrific picture, and it was hard to see a pressing need for a remake. But director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have given us one, and it's improbably superb, better than the original in some ways (not all), reimagined without laborious "reinterpretation"; new, yet somehow entirely faithful to the material.

It begins with urban renewal--Spielberg's camera gliding down and skulking around the wreckage of the slummy Upper West Side neighborhoods being cleared to make way for the Lincoln Center complex in the late '50s/early '60s. To those unmistakable, teasing opening bites of Leonard Bernstein's score, we see the Jets (Anglo gang) stealing cans of paint and making a sortie into the turf of the Sharks (Puerto Rican gang) for a reason that carries a shocking punch.

From there on, Spielberg and Kushner ingeniously, even playfully dramatize the economic and ethnic shifts that created the gang animosities, and give their movie a specific context that the original, with its almost fairy-tale Montague-and-Capulet conflict, only hints at. Other marginalized figures, like "Anybodys" (non-binary actor Iris Menas), get a deeper treatment here as well.

Stimulating as all this is, it would mean nothing if the music and acting were soulless. But somehow these numbers, some of them repurposed and reset, spring to life. Along with choreographer Justin Peck, Spielberg, again, deserves no small portion of the credit for this; he even gets the cars on the streets into the kinetic rhythms of the tunes.

But the actors are even more potent, most surprisingly in the treacherous lead roles. Who knew Ansel Elgort could sing like that? He plays Tony straightforwardly and guilelessly, and he and tiny newcomer Rachel Zegler, as Maria, throw themselves into their joy at each other with no mannerism or embarrassment, so that their pure and perfect love at first sight, always the difficult part of this story, almost becomes plausible.

Mike Faist brings a haunted undertone to his cocksure manner as Riff, and Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez are knockouts as Anita and Bernardo. If neither of them quite have the febrile glamour and sexiness of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris in the original, well, who could?

Moreno, by the way, appears here, not in a honorary cameo but in a real role--the equivalent of Doc the drugstore proprietor--and she nails it with guts and grace. She gave the best performance in the original, and one of the best here.


  1. Oooo, this review really makes me want to see it in the theater, Covid or not. Your elliptical reference to social shifts has me dying to see what Kushner has written. But, still, I cannot imagine anyone improving upon Jerome Robbins's choreography in the original.

  2. You're right; I wouldn't say this choreography is an improvement over Robbins, but it's different enough to be worth seeing on its own terms.
    I'd love to hear what you think of it! Thanx for reading!