West Side Story poster

West Side Story (2021)

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What it’s about:

It’s a remake of the original West Side Story film, which was based on the Broadway musical, which was itself based on the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. transports the famous Shakespearian tale to the streets of New York City, where rival gangs stand in the way of love between two smitten teens: Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, and Tony, a white boy.

Names you might know:

Steven Spielberg, for one. He worked from a newly adapted screenplay by acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America). Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) and Rachel Zegler (a newcomer to the big screen, but she has a large YouTube following) play the star-crossed lovers. The cast also includes Ariana DeBose as Anita (Hamilton) and Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the original 1961 film).

Why it’s worth your time:

West Side Story image courtesy 20th Century StudiosThere was plenty of time to build a buzz about the reboot to the beloved West Side Story. Although the film was completed prior to the pandemic and was due to arrive in theaters a year ago, Spielberg opted to hold it for release until more theaters could accommodate audiences again. (If the reason behind the move was to pave the way for a bigger opening weekend, it wasn’t exactly a winning strategy.) But good things come to those who wait.

So, here we are, 60 years later, and Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and the rest of the Jets and Sharks are staying cool on the big screen once again. Skeptics will complain that the original 1961 film—which won nine Oscars, including Best Picture—stands alone in the movie musical canon and didn’t need an update. Spielberg makes the case that the world has changed a lot in six decades, and there’s always room for improvement.

The film is set in the same Upper West Side (hence the title) location and in the same late-1950s time frame as the original, but Spielberg found a great way to update the story right from the first minute. He shows the Jets struggling to defend their turf against the Puerto Rican Sharks, as a wrecking ball clears the way for the future Lincoln Center. The gangs are, in effect, on their last legs.

But where Spielberg really shines is making everything seem epic. The man behind Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Raiders of the Lost Ark, just to name a few, takes the opportunity to create a visual spectacle. The 1961 film was shot primarily on a Hollywood backlot, and looks like it. The new version takes the action directly to the streets. Spielberg closed down several East Harlem blocks and his talent for every small detail is evident from street signage to subways. “America” was always one of the most fun numbers from the original, and still doesn’t disappoint, this time going from rooftop to blacktop. Even the interior sets—like the dance at the gym, another memorable number—look fresh and colorful.

West Side Story image courtesy 20th Century StudiosSpielberg also puts an emphasis on authenticity. Each cast member sings on screen (they were dubbed in the 1961 version). He also addressed the lack of Latinx actors in the original, casting YouTube sensation Rachel Zegler, who is of Colombian descent, in her first big-screen role as Maria. Rita Moreno, one of the original cast members who was actually Puerto Rican, returns in a newly created role (and serves as an executive producer as well) and all but steals the movie in one scene. Fellow Puerto Rican Ariana DeBose is a worthy successor as Maria’s best friend Anita. She brings the fiery dance moves that landed Moreno an Oscar for the original.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner—who previously worked with Spielberg on Munich in 2005 and Lincoln in 2012—made some tweaks to the script, so this period piece feels alive and relevant, resonating in the 2021 political climate. His changes include adding some depth and backstory to the characters. The ethnic rift between the rival gangs has never felt so wide.

Whether you compare West Side Story to the original or consider this version all on its own, Spielberg is on display in every frame as a great filmmaker. Critics have been largely ecstatic in their assessment of the new film, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has already bestowed it with four Golden Globe nominations. One other question that was emphatically answered: Spielberg can direct a musical.

The takeaway:

Steven Spielberg manages to make this West Side Story both retro and modern at the same time. Moviegoers will be in awe of the cinematography and musical numbers. The movie doesn’t lose any steam in this reboot, 60 years in the making.

Watch it with:

This is a movie that viewers of any age can enjoy. Of course, anyone with a love of vintage Hollywood musicals will especially appreciate it. Fans of Spielberg or Moreno will not want to miss this delight either.

Worth noting:

There are several scenes with Spanish-speaking characters, but Spielberg made a deliberate choice not to use subtitles in the spirit of inclusivity.

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