We all know Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of all time, and “West Side Story” is just another successful genre tackled to add to his résumé. Most of what’s better about this version compared to the original, 1961 is Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner adding stuff back in that was subtracted. The big one is no more brown-face Puerto Ricans. The Sharks and the Jets are cast so authentically, the cast being made up of almost entirely fresh faces. There’s no denying the original is incredibly dated, this version is just so much better.
This story deserved an update and Tony Kushner’s restoration is surely a good one, even if I still have minimized nitpicks. Although, every problem I still have was transferred over from the original. The script as a whole has been changed for the better. It’s much bolder and more emotionally powerful. It was a weird choice to not have subtitles in any of the Spanish-speaking scenes because not every citizen speaks fluent Spanish. Some lyrics have been altered by the late Steven Sondheim, but the locations each dance number is set in have been drastically enhanced to a more modern feel with entirely dazzling choreography. “America” feels unbelievably cinematic and the “Tonight” quintet featuring every character was magical. Everything about the songs in this film has been heightened which is what sold me on a significantly improved remake.
The shallow, chemistry-less romance at the center of the story did not intrigue me as much as I was hoping for. Casting a problematic lead in Ansel Elgort only provided problems Rachel Zegler’s vibrancy couldn’t fix. It’s frankly impossible to watch Elgort and not be reminded of the allegations, but I’m not going to get into all of that, I’m only here to talk about the movie itself. That said, he can sing but he’s one of the weaker links among the cast. These two don’t shine on screen as much as the rest of the cast of characters does. The worst decision this movie makes is how easily and quickly forgiven Elgort’s Tony is for killing Bernardo, not only by Maria, his sister, but DeBose’s Anita as well.
Ariana DeBose was absolutely outstanding in this film and any time she appeared I could not take my eyes off of her. Forget about the movie topping the original, I never would’ve thought Rita Moreno could’ve been topped. David Alvarez is an electric dancer and he’s not getting the praise he deserves. Mike Faist is a mind-blowing talent who also fleshes out Riff, a character I barely remember having much to do. These three performances elegantly match the combination of dancing, singing, and acting that is needed. On top of Zegler, I hope these three blow up into stardom. To see these three performances is the lone reason you need to go see this movie.
It was neat seeing Rita Moreno in a very small role, gender-bent from the original, especially since she infamously played Anita in that film. It was organic how they changed the mentoring role of “Doc” to being Doc’s widow. Moreno was the first and only Latina to ever win an acting Oscar – for playing Anita – and if she were to be nominated again for this film (which is not happening), she’ll break all kinds of additional records.
The original film dominated the academy awards back in 1962, being nominated for eleven and winning ten. I believe, this year could be again in favor of this classic, charming story. Because everyone is so in awe of what Spielberg has done, throwing all of the imaginable praise towards him, I think a new Best Picture frontrunner has just emerged. It may even hold that status until it claims the award. “The Departed” is the only film remake ever to do so, therefore the feeling of “haven’t we already award this narrative” may be working against it. Steven Spielberg is getting in for Best Director, and may win due to him being the real Steven Spielberg. Ariana DeBose is undoubtedly getting in and is also my new frontrunner in Best Supporting Actress, leaving Supporting Actor still the only acting category without a worthy winner. Mike Faist is great and would be worthy, but I’m hesitant locking him in as a winner because he doesn’t have the over-the-top musical energy like DeBose. Of the actual possibilities, Rachel Zegler feels like the least likely acting nomination. If she were to somehow get in there’s no chance of her winning. Right behind Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” this will be the runner-up for Best Adapted Screenplay, and it’ll also gain loads of technical nominations; currently, I have this film leading in none of them. The lighting was absolutely breathtaking throughout, but especially during the dance in the gymnasium, earring it a Best Cinematography nod. With that, I’m assuming Best Editing, Production Design, Sound, Costume Design, and Makeup and Hair are no-brainer contenders.
This isn’t a shot-by-shot copy of the original film. The story has been slightly reworked and the auteur Spielberg just knows how to do what he does best. The dance numbers are filmed so cinematically that I’m glad I got to see this on on the big screen. Apart from one exception, the cast glows and Rachel Zegler is made into an indisputable movie star. I’m not a big musical guy and I cannot believe I enjoyed “West Side Story” this much.
Final Grade: A