Written by Ashley Vanderwaren
There are certain things that make or break your outlook on a remake of a movie. Is it different enough to keep me entertained while still similar enough to not tarnish my original investment in this story? Will I spend the entire runtime thinking of the original, or will this one set itself apart? Combine the natural concerns of a remake with the fact that this is an iconic musical, and you can see the apprehension going into West Side Story. In a time where movie adaptations of musicals are routinely failing to reach the heights of their legacies, Steven Spielberg delivers.
As one would expect from a director and cinematographer team of many accolades this film looks magnificent. Longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kamiński reminds you of the importance of every frame, with several musical moments being lifted to new heights thanks to his work. The camera moves with the choreography in a way that could not have been possible in the original. Another standout is the production design, with Adam Stockhausen (The French Dispatch) really bringing old New York to life. The world of West Side Story is a world of a neighborhood of gentrification, and the tension between gangs beats with the dying heart of a community in crisis.
If one is inclined to compare this to the 1961 variation, there’s a few new moments that will catch longtime fans off guard. Some are minor, such as heading into a salt mine for the rumble or shifting where Tony and Maria go on a date, but most changes are adding character moments. Maria’s other paramour is expanded upon, gang members are given more depth, and it gives each character a more lived-in feel. Here is where the casting really pays off for the newer version, as Rachel Zegler lights up the screen every second she’s on-screen. Much was made about her initial casting, but the newcomer manages to go toe-to-toe with some of Broadway’s rising stars. Zegler’s Maria is a beacon of hope that love can conquer all adversity in the end, bringing an emotional heft to the lovers’ choice to be together. This shift, as well as the choice to restore the song order closer to that of the stage version, really bring home the ultimate tragedy that is unfurling before our eyes.
There is one major problem with West Side Story, and it’s the same issue that Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise dealt with the first time around. The original show has an extremely slow pace, and the film carries a lot of the same flaws with its two hour and thirty-six-minute runtime. While the film does an admirable job covering the epic love story, it’s hard not to check your watch during some moments. Even so, it’s hard not to fall back in love with the iconic story when all the pieces fall into place. Whether you are new to West Side Story or have committed the songs to memory, this modern take on a social issue that has yet to disappear with a side of Romeo & Juliet is absolutely worth the watch.