An iconic filmmaker taking on the job of remaking an iconic movie musical basically has much more risk than the possible reward. Yet, Stephen Spielberg took on the job of remaking West Side Story (2021), and he pretty much nailed it. It is distinctly different in many ways, but the essence is there – and Speilberg’s ability to make undeniably watchable movies shines through.
If you’re familiar with Romeo and Juliet, you’ve got the gist of the plot of West Side Story. Instead of the family feud at the heart of that story, here the Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) are feuding over the streets of their New York block with the Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). Despite the immense dislike for one another, Tony is taken aback when he sees Maria (Rachel Zegler), and the classic tale ensues.
Mike Faist as Riff was the breakout performance. I’ve not seen him in anything before, and compared to the original film, I was really locked in on Riff. He’s not inherently likable as racism is an element of the feud, but his performance is outstanding. For those familiar with R & J, you’ll find Riff to be in the Mercutio role – who is also my favorite character in that story. Anita (Ariana DeBose), Maria’s roommate and would be sister-in-law if Bernardo ever marries her, is the other big stand-out performance. Not surprising that DeBose would be fantastic, but her songs are iconic, and her performance stands strong.
While both Elgort and Zegler perform admirably, I was surprised to not be as invested in them as the rest of the characters. I can’t quite pinpoint what didn’t click for me with their connection…maybe it’s my increasing age and natural skepticism of young love at first sight. Nonetheless, both actors sing their songs quite well, with Zegler approaching operatic levels of singing that is not usually my taste – but I was still impressed.
I was happy to see that Spielberg had no problem adjusting his style to a musical. He is a master of knowing where to place the camera, and while at times it felt like maybe too much coverage, his camera placement was usually quite satisfying. We could see the performances and really feel the world. Of course, that was one of the things I missed about the old film. There is an artificiality to the world of the original that was both gorgeous and really set the tone of the musical quite well. Spielberg’s New York is much grittier, and the colors of both the city and the costumes are much more muted than the original film.
West Side Story is definitely worth watching, and fans of the original will find plenty to enjoy here. If you’ve never seen the other, maybe this one will be yours. It certainly has all the elements for audiences to embrace and enjoy. West Side Story earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.