WEST SIDE STORY – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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Ariana DeBose as Anita (center) in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

WEST SIDE STORY is the exception to the rule that remaking a classic is pointless task. In fact, in some ways it is a better film. No wonder with the stellar team behind it – directed Steven Spielberg, script adapted by Tony Kushner, cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, and with executive producer Rita Moreno, the EGOT plus Pulitzer winner (one of the world’s three) who starred in original film as Anita, the only real Puerto Rican cast member in the 1961 film.

WEST SIDE STORY is one of the great classics of musical theater, first on the Broadway stage in 1957 and then in a 1961 movie version, with choreography by Jerome Robbins, music by composer Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by playwright Arthur Laurents. The story, based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” is still set in the same 1957 New York but now the story takes place in a gritty, more realistic setting, with rubble in the streets as well as passersby and vintage cars. Tony Kushner adapted his script from the stage play rather than the movie, so audiences will notices a few differences from the familiar movie, as well as some updates to make the film more accessible for modern audiences. This story takes place in a neighborhood under the shadow of “urban renewal,” the destructive wholesale “clearance” of whole poor neighborhoods for redevelopment for the more affluent. Two juvenile street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are vying for dominance over the neighborhood, even as it is being emptied to make way for the new Lincoln Center.

The Sharks are recent arrivals from Puerto Rico while the Jets are the descendants of earlier immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Poland, who resent the new arrivals. Against that backdrop, Tony (Ansel Elgort), once a member of the Jets, meets and falls in love with Puerto Rican Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks. Maria lives with her brother and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose), who has taken the young girl under her wing.

The Jets are now led by Riff (Mike Faist), Tony’s childhood friend, who hopes to bring his pal back into the gang, at least for a showdown with the Sharks. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original film, now plays the widow of Doc, the kindly pharmacist who employed and advised Tony, a role that she plays in this version. Corey Stoll plays police detective Lieutenant Schrank and Brian d’Arcy James plays the frustrated Officer Krupke, while Josh Andrés Rivera plays Chino, the Puerto Rican boy that Bernardo has picked out for his sister Maria.

The immigrants theme was ground-breaking in 1957 but that the issue remains timely gives the story a contemporary hook. While the basic story remains the same, there are some changes, Some lyrics and dialog are gently updated to reflect modern sensibilities and address old issues, which gives the film a more contemporary feel. Some songs are sung in a different order or even sung by a different character but the changes do not change the basic story or its audience appeal. These changes seamlessly blended in by using musical arrangements and singing style similar to the 1961 movie.

Casting is also different, as this version corrects some cringe-worthy choices in the original cast, by casting more Hispanics in those roles. Unlike the 1961 film, the stars do their own singing, and both Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler do well in that respect.

Dancing remains a strong point in this film, with several fast, colorful, pulse-raising production numbers that are highlights. While the leads are focal points for songs, the supporting characters lead the dance numbers with Mike Faist as Riff and Ariana DeBose as Anita soaring to impressive heights. Both are triple threats, excelling in acting, singing and dancing, particularly dancing for Faist and singing for DeBose.

This is a musical with so many memorable songs. Highlights include the “America” production number, now opened up on to the streets and even more colorful, and the very funny “Officer Krupke” number, now set in a police station retains its punch. The “Tonight” duet has all the romance audiences could want, and the opening “Jets” number retains all its energy, with a little extra menace added in.

The cinematography by the legendary Janusz Kaminski adds greatly to the film. The strong use of slanting light adds drama, the dance numbers are brilliant and electric, and the night time scenes are filled with stabs of light, from street lights, searchlights, and headlights, adding a jolt of electricity to many scenes.

While some will still cite the 1961 classic film as their favorite, a good case can be made that this one is the better film, meaning Spielberg and Kushner have pulled off the near-impossible – remaking a classic and topping the original.

WEST SIDE STORY opens Friday, Dec. 10, in theaters.

RATING: 4 out of 4 stars