By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Steven Spielberg reimagines one of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s most beloved musicals and delivers another masterful film. I am sure there are plenty of people who absolutely adore either the 1961 version of West Side Story or experienced a stage production of the musical that is near and dear to them. Well, I truly believe that Spielberg is in one of these categories or both. His adaptation of the musical genuinely reflects the work of a filmmaker who absolutely adores West Side Story and would do everything within his powers and skills to give audiences what they deserve. I sat and enjoyed his cinematic interpretation of the musical play and marveled in both the visual and auditory delights that his love letter has to offer.
For those unfamiliar with West Side Story, the musical is basically an update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The story takes place in 1950s New York City and focuses on the intense rivalry between street gangs the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are a white gang led by Riff (Mike Faist), whose second and best friend Tony (Ansel Elgort) has recently been forced to reform his ways due to his previous run-ins with the law. The Sharks are a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). Bernardo and his gang, along with the Puerto Rican people of the neighborhood face much prejudice and adversity by most of the white citizens of the area. Things get rather complicated when Tony and Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) fall in love. As this is a story of star-crossed lovers, one must expect much conflict and controversy to erupt in some volitile ways among the people of the Upper West Side.
I absolutely love this more modern and somewhat realistic take on West Side Story. Spielberg and his crew have taken a stage play and made it much more organic and realistic. While the movie is still a musical, they make the audience believe that it is taking place in a real world setting. The stakes feel more realistic and the violence more visceral. While there is a lovely nitty gritty feel to the movie, some of the more extraordinary musical numbers transcend this reality and launch its audiences into some beautiful cinematic territory.
Spielberg owes much to his production team, his art designers, and cinematographer Janus Kaminski. The movie is such a gorgeous affair that it should be experienced on the big screen in a theater, but will also look just as amazing in one’s home on a 4K Blu-ray. But that home entertainment system better have an incredible sound system, because this movie musical deserves to be experienced in the most immersive setting available.
As far as the castiing is concerned, this wonderful group of performers give this movie their all and shine beautifully because of this. As Maria, Rachel Zegler is absolutely incredible. Not only does she have the dramatic chops for the role, she can sing her heart out wonderfully. As Tony, Ansel Elgort not only has solid charisma, he can belt out his numbers very well. As Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s close friend, Ariana DeBose brings much attitude and passion to a character once immortalized by the legendary Rita Moreno. Though she has some big shoes to fill, DeBose holds her own superbly. As Bernardo, David Alvarez gives a fiery performance as Bernardo, the hot-tempered, but protective and caring leader of the Sharks. The rest of the supporting cast all perform their roles wonderfully, and it is an especially awesome treat that the filmmakers included West Side Story legend Rita Moreno in a new and important role in the story.
To be honest, when I first heard that Spielberg had plans to remake West Side Story, I couldn’t help, but groan. That is usually my default reaction when I hear about any kind of remake. I simply cannot help it. However, I went into this movie with an open mind and am now ecstatic to be able to praise this movie and all of the wonderful things it has to offer audiences. Bravo, Mr. Spielberg. Bravo.