As far as remakes go, most typically aren’t as sophisticated or handled with as much care as Steven Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY. Most remakes these days feel like cash grabs or an attempt to capitalize off of a preexisting property without putting a great amount of effort in, which gives the word a bad connotation in film discussion. With just the very first shot of WEST SIDE STORY, filmgoers will know that this particular remake has something entirely different in mind. The time and effort put into this film is clearly unparalleled and curated with such precision that it puts most other musicals to shame. Spielberg, for someone who has not yet helmed a full-on musical such as this, knows exactly how to make an all-time great musical, and his version of this classic story rivals the original in terms of quality.
Those who don’t yet know the plot of this classic Broadway musical should know that it is basically a remake of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet but with two rival gangs in New York City instead of the Capulets and Montagues. The Jets, an all-white gang, are constantly fighting with the Sharks, a proudly Puerto Rican gang, for the turf of their poor city neighborhood that will soon be demolished to make way for the future Lincoln Center. At a dance in which both gangs are in attendance, Tony (Ansel Elgort), a member of the Jets, and María (Rachel Zegler), a member of the Sharks, fall in love at first sight much to their families’ dismay. Their relationship quickly causes even more war between the two gangs, and things quickly escalate to a level of violence that neither gang could have possibly foreseen .
For a musical, WEST SIDE STORY has a remarkably dark plot, yet one of the greatest characteristics of the movie is the joy and celebration in its musical numbers. Spielberg directs and choreographs some of the best musical dance numbers ever put to film, showcasing a level of specificity and talent that comes with a sense of wonder as to how any of it was accomplished. The ensemble cast of this film is great on every level — Spielberg made sure to cast the most talented dancers from both film and Broadway to round out his heavily ambitious sequences. The ensemble musical numbers are helmed with the same high level of skill as the action sequences in Raiders of the Lost Ark, showcasing Spielberg’s immense range as a filmmaker.
Spielberg also did not waste time on casting the lead roles, almost all of whom are stellar and future stars-in-the-making. Rachel Zegler, who plays María, has one of the best singing voices in a Hollywood movie while also being able to steal any scene she’s in. Both Zegler and Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita with a passion and heartbreak that showcases her immense range, are A-listers in the making, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them both pop up again over the next couple of years. However, the true highlight for me is Mike Faist as Riff, who not only nails the complicated dance numbers near the beginning, but showcases a hidden emotional vulnerability behind his tough-guy persona. Faist’s fantastic performance is a stark contrast to one of the film’s biggest weaknesses in multiple respects: Ansel Elgort. He is never terrible as Tony, but he plays his role in an average and forgettable manner, which is nowhere near the transcendent performances of people like Zegler or Faist.
This performance ends up impacting the plot, for the relationship between Tony and María does not hit the audience in the way it should for the last act to have its full effect. It does succeed in many ways, but certain emotional beats don’t seem to land as much as the original. This isn’t to say that the last act is not immensely moving because of Spielberg’s symbolic direction, but certain plot beats leading up to the final moments feel weak and irrational in a way that does not add to the message of the film. Much of what I love about the new WEST SIDE STORY is how the hubris and pride of the men in this story escalates the hardship both gangs end up facing. However, sometimes these bad decisions are carried out by both male and female characters just to further the plot, which leaves the script contradicting some of the better themes of the story.
Many people have focused on the glaring flaws of WEST SIDE STORY as being evidence to not seek it out, but this musical is far more than one actor or one plot point can make or break. The cross-cultural messages and commentary on the defensive masculine culture that negatively impacts all groups is powerful and worth the revisit, and the talent involved is immense. I can only imagine how long the rehearsal period was to prepare for almost every scene in this two hour and 35 minute epic, and the cast and crew clearly dedicated themselves to pulling off some of these near impossible feats. In general, Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY is a rarity, for it proves that a remake can match the quality of the original. It may have flaws that hold the film back from greatness, but this achievement is not one that should be taken lightly.