From the first notes of the overture until the final frame of the credits, Steven Spielberg’s remake of WEST SIDE STORY is an amazing achievement. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has elevated the classic source material of the Broadway version by giving greater depths to characters, inciting their passions to even greater heights. Critics will discuss some changes for years - making Anybodys a trans character instead of a tomboy, and changing the male character of Doc to his widow played by Rita Moreno - probably the most notable examples.
But don’t any negatives keep you away. The film looks spectacular, and the powerhouse cast delivers the great score with fever and panache. Even the production stills wow.
If you are new to WEST SIDE STORY, suffice it to say that theater legends Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) and Jerome Robbins (original direction and choreography) created a thrilling new version of Romeo and Juliet with feuding gangs replacing the Capulets and Montagues of Shakespeare’s original. It is biting, romantic, and bitter but much loved for its spectacular score and Robbins’ brilliant movement.
But in Spielberg’s hands, it is fresh, funny, and given greater historical context. It will rank as one of his finest achievements.
Rachel Zegler makes an award-winning caliber film debut as Maria. She is honest, sings beautifully, and glows with emotion. Ansel Elgort makes a fine Tony, and he sings, dances, and fights with conviction. Ariana DeBose plays Anita, the role created by Rita Moreno in the original version, and she puts her powerful stamp all over it. David Alveraz is outstanding as Bernardo, who is now a professional boxer in Kushner’s screenplay. Standouts in the large gangs are Mike Faist as Riff, Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino, and Iris Menas as Anybodys. The much-loved Moreno is perfectly pitched as the sorrowful survivor who has watched kids become tyrants.
The credits reveal that 15,000 people worked on the film, and the work of everyone of them should be applauded. Each frame has a zillion small details that fascinate.
The achievements I most appreciated were Justin Peck’s choreography, which honors the original material while giving it a daring contemporary feel. Director of photography Janusz Kaminski does magnificent work, without employing any obvious tricks. Production designers Adam Stockhausen and the five art directors make the poverty of the city look gorgeous.
The music is another amazing achievement. Here is how Variety explains that musical teamwork: Oscar-nominated composer David Newman oversaw all of the arrangements and orchestrations; Tony-winning songwriter Jeanine Tesori supervised all of the vocal performances; Grammy-nominated producer Matt Sullivan was on set throughout, supervising the music during shooting; and world-renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Bernstein score with both the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
My favorite musical sequences are the completely re-conceptualized version of 'Gee Officer Krupke', and the terrific fight and dance on a decaying dock over the Hudson.
I first encountered WEST SIDE STORY as a teen, and the powerful impression it made on me then was surpassed by the impression the new version makes today. Don’t miss it!