By Ethan Lauren
“West Side Story” is what happens when a master’s touch recreates a vetted classic that seldom would dare even try. Originally a 1957 Broadway musical, “West Side Story” was adapted to the screen in 1961. This modern reinterpretation by director Steven Spielberg is both a love letter to the original stage musical and a wonderfully reconstructed reminisce of a New York long since gone.
When the film starts, two rival gangs within the now gone San Juan Hill are finding it difficult living in the same vicinity. The Jets, a group of American teenagers—and often the instigators—resent the Sharks, made up of Puerto Rican immigrants. Tony, a former Jet himself, has put some distance between him and the gang after spending a year in jail due to a fight gone too far. Looking for something more out of life, Tony, played by Ansel Elgort, falls in love with María, played by Rachel Zegler, despite the character being the sister of the Sharks’ leader.
Summarizing in fewer words, it’s “Romeo and Juliet” with singing, dancing, and denim. Much of the tension within “West Side Story” revolves around the prejudice between the Americans and Puerto Ricans.
To those who’ve never yet experienced the snapping sensation that swept the nation, Spielberg will make you see why “West Side Story” lingers largely over the musical zeitgeist.
Thankfully, Spielberg chose not to paint white actors brown like the 1961 film, and the actors aren’t dubbed during the singing sections with different voices. In further comparison, there’s a lot more dialogue, giving better opportunities to understand characters’ motivations and relationships to one another. Though the brunt of the story revolves around the romance between Tony and María, still time is given to the supporting characters such as those within the Jets and the Sharks.
Another change is the predominance of the Spanish language, with the film itself lacking any subtitles. “West Side Story” provides exposition through the gauze of humor and sincerity as the Puerto Ricans force themselves to speak English in an effort to acclimate to the United States. However most of the Sharks are still underutilized, save for David Alvarez’s Bernardo, a lot of the runtime focuses on the Jets.
Running the American gang, Riff, played by Mike Faist, gives a strong performance of a man in charge of a group of malnourished teenagers who think the world is out to get them. There is an excellent scene after the Jets procure a gun, where they play around with the weapon as if it was nothing more than a plastic prop, a fitting notion to signify that ultimately these are all a bunch of kids making their own problems.
There are certain musical sequences changed in their context within the plot, such as “Cool” and “Somewhere,” giving freshness to those used to the 1961 movie. Other songs, like “America” and “I Feel Pretty” are given enough changes to still make them memorable in the wake of the original film’s presence.
Two of the main standouts are both Zegler and Ariana DeBose, portraying Anita—the wife of Bernardo. Zegler cements herself with this performance as María as an actress to look out for, largely unknown until this point outside of YouTube, she is to be Disney’s Snow White, a project worth looking forward to if only banking on the merits of her alone. DeBose, likewise, elevates and transcends the role of Anita, giving a vulnerability that perfectly matches the tone of “West Side Story.”
Finally, Tony, played by Elgort, is a casting choice not without faults. He fulfills the brooding demeanor of a man whose past digressions still haunt him to this day, despite all attempts to find meaning in his life. However, this being a musical, his singing is merely passable, serving as one of the weak links marring this adaptation from being the superior film adaptation. To his credit, he does sing his heart out, but in sequences such as “Tonight” or “One Hand, One Heart” where he’s joined with Zegler, the difference between the two performers is night and day.
To the defense of Elgort’s performance, Tony is a flawed character and thus a flawed singing voice serves to accentuate the rift between the two young lovers. If María is the goal to which Tony will put all other wants aside, it makes sense that she must stand above every other person in his life. Nevertheless, most will continue to listen to Jim Bryant’s vocals in the shower over Elgort’s rendition.
Much of what is to be loved with Spielberg’s latest film relies on its excellent direction. So many shots still come to mind after leaving the theater. Adding on the beautiful costumery and sets, everything works to immerse you into the world of “West Side Story.”
With so much to love, there exists a space to enjoy both the 1961 film and this one. The worst part of this interpretation of “West Side Story” is that forever until I die, as I sit down to watch one, I’ll always want to watch the other afterward.