Steven Spielberg’s rendition of West Side Story is up for best picture at this year’s Oscars, and definitely worth the watch if you are a fan of musicals! From the incredible dance sequences to the beautiful imagery, this adaptation of the classic musical is extremely enjoyable. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous when I heard that Spielberg was set to direct a remake of a musical, but I am pleased to report that he knocked it out of the park and my expectations were far surpassed.
The story follows Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) in their star-crossed love affair that is disapproved of by seemingly everyone in their lives. Now, I won’t belabor the summary of this story, because if you have seen the musical before, or read Romeo and Juliet, there is a good chance that you are familiar with the plot already. But, the main struggle between the two lovers is that they are ingrained in two gangs that despise each other, the Sharks and the Jets. Maria’s brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez) is the leader of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican street gang. Tony, on the other hand, used to be the leader of the Jets, a primarily Italian street gang that is now led by Tony’s childhood best friend Riff (Mike Faist). The two groups are seen feuding from the start, arguing over turf and having a disdain for the other group along racial lines. The conflict rises when Tony and Maria meet at a school dance and instantly fall in love, a la Romeo and Juliet. Tensions boil and eventually lead to a brawl between the two groups, to which Riff and Bernardo bring weapons without the other’s knowledge. Tony arrives late to the rumble and tries to break it up, but is unsuccessful, and in the heat of the moment, Bernardo kills Riff. Outraged at the loss of his best friend, Tony then kills Bernardo, and both gangs flee the scene just before the police show up.
Upon hearing about the events at the fight, Maria is in shock, and Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) is equally distraught. Despite the fact that Tony killed her brother, Maria still wants to be with Tony, a fact that Anita begrudgingly accepts. Maria sends Anita to tell Tony that she wants to run away with him, but upon entering Tony’s hideout, the rest of the Jets are there and begin harassing her. In a burst of anger and frustration, Anita exclaims that Maria had been killed and that she was there to tell Tony of that fact. Tony learns of this false news and sees no reason to live anymore, so he seeks out a member of the Sharks that is going to kill him to get even for the fact that Tony killed their leader. The ending does deviate from the one found in Romeo and Juliet, so I won’t spoil the final scene, but be warned that it is an emotional blow.
In many ways, this film is not just a remake of a classic, but an update on it. In contrast to the original, Maria’s family and the Sharks get a lot more development, shedding light on their experiences and struggles as Puerto Rican immigrants living in America. This theme was touched on in the original, perhaps most explicitly in the song “America,” where Bernardo and Anita’s face-off singing about the pros and cons of living in the United States. But, in this version, we see a lot more flavor and intimacy from the Sharks, which gives them more humanity. Also, Spielberg made a bold choice to not include any subtitles when the characters spoke Spanish. I think that this choice added many layers to the storytelling and I hope that is a convention that continues in the future. By not including subtitles, Spielberg is sending a message that you don’t need to assimilate or change your culture in order to participate in the American system. Maria and her family are seen struggling with their identity as immigrants and trying to decide if it is even worth it for them to stay here. The characters speaking Spanish is not just some convention for American audiences to sit through while reading, it is a portrayal of what these interactions at home would be like. Subtitles are not shown when English-speaking characters interact, so why should Spanish-speaking characters be treated differently? In the original version, it almost seemed like the Sharks were an obstacle that the white protagonist had to overcome in order to be with the woman that he loves, but this version does a really good job at showing both sides of this feud as people with complex emotions and cultures.
I think that the characters were very fun to spend time with, and the acting performances were all either solid or really good, with Ariana DeBose being a standout. The biggest critique that I have is that the whole story hinges on this immediate and intense love connection that happens between Tony and Maria. Without buying into their love for each other, the rest of the story does not have the same emotional payoff. Overall, I think that Zegler and Elgort pulled this feat off, with Zegler being more effective at communicating her love than Elgort. I think that if their chemistry was more palpable, it would have made the ending that much more intense and powerful. Overall, though, I don’t have many complaints and think that this was a very fun and well-made movie.
The last thing that I’ll say is that this movie is just stunningly beautiful to look at, which should be no surprise from a Spielberg movie. During every dance sequence, the camera is moving the entire time, capturing different angles and making you feel like you are almost a part of it. The imagery is bright and fun to look at. One scene stands out in particular where Tony goes to visit Maria for the first time after the dance. It is an old alleyway with clotheslines running from building to building, and there were puddles on the ground from the rain. But, the lighting and camera angles make it look like a starry dreamscape, which not only is very visually appealing but also gives us an insight into Tony’s mind. His love is so intense that even the dirty and cluttered alley is like a paradise. If you are looking for a fun and exciting movie, or if you were a fan of the original but scared to try the remake, I would definitely recommend giving it a watch. 4 out of 5 stars.