By John H. Foote
(****) In theatres
Let’s get right to it — it is a knockout, a masterpiece, brilliant on every level. And to the question everyone will ask: it is equal to the original? In fact, I think it’s greater. Steven Spielberg, finally creating his musical dream, has made an angrier, edgier, more vibrant and passionate film than the original. The performances are pitch perfect which was always a problem for the original. Richard Beymer was too dreamy and dreary, Natalie Wood was good, but she did not do her own singing, and George Chakiris was wildly overrated (he won an Oscar!). Rita Moreno earned her Oscar in the original and is again terrific in the remake.
After a year of wondering, we can now stop. Expect to levitate out of the theatre after seeing this magical new musical. All that huffing and puffing about Spielberg having the audacity to remake a classic can stop now. But first a word about that.
Why not remake a classic? Why not bring a film to a new generation?
Do you know how many productions of West Side Story I have seen onstage? At least 20 and that is a small fraction of the thousands that have been performed around the globe, professionally and otherwise. I saw the recent award-winning remount of the musical in 2010 and walked out disappointed, wishing I had left at intermission. If that had been my last impression of the musical, I would be even more disappointed. Spielberg took everything great about the original and made it deeper, more complex and far more realistic. It is an astounding achievement from a director who has nothing more to prove. Martin Scorsese and he bounce back and forth as the greatest director of our time, but today with this, Spielberg earns the crown.
He has always wanted to direct a musical, but I thought he might hold off for Wicked, the fantastical Broadway smash about the lives of the witches in Oz before Dorothy landed. But no, he chose a winner of 10 Academy Awards with the intention of making it better.
Granted there are some films that seem untouchable as remakes: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), On the Waterfront (1954), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972). But I think if the makers can improve or provide the narrative to a new generation, why not? The Coen Brothers did a magnificent job with True Grit (2010), stripping the film of the John Wayne mysticism and giving us a brutally realistic film that I adored. And anything based on a Broadway musical has room for a remake after 20 years, though I personally hope nobody wants to remake Cabaret (1972) or Hair (1979).
We should never, ever doubt Spielberg. Look at his extraordinary filmography, his many awards and nominations from the Academy, the Globes, the critics groups and the guilds. Eleven of his films have been nominated for Best Picture, with Schindler’s List dominating the awards in 1993. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) has nominated him 11 times, honouring him with Best Director three times, while the Academy has awarded him two Academy Awards for Best Director. By my count, he should have five or six. A nomination for West Side Story is a certainty.
The same story unfolds, basically, as the rival gangs the Jets (white kids) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican kids) have a turf war. The Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), despise the fact that the Puerto Ricans are beginning to outnumber them. The Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), are becoming more and more powerful. When Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) sees Riff’s best friend Tony (Ansel Elgort), like Romeo and Juliet, they are each smitten. And as in Shakespeare’s play about the star-crossed lovers, all hell breaks loose.
In this new version Bernardo is a boxer and a hot head, so one can imagine what he thinks of his sister and Tony. Biff is entitled and bitter, believing he has claim on his country because he was here first. The character is genuinely dangerous, like a rat in a corner with no escape.
Like the original, the dance sequences are a language all their own, and breathtaking to behold. Justin Peck handled the choreography for the film and works miracles. Working with Spielberg’s bold and always confident direction and the moving camera of Janusz Kaminski, there is an energy to the film, especially during the dance numbers which burst with life.
Perhaps the greatest change comes with the portrayal of the young lovers Maria and Tony, each superbly acted. We believe the love story, the yearning, the aching to be together despite knowing that nothing good can come of it. The two have that heat, that sexual tension that is essential if we are to believe the love story. Zegler shines like a big bright new star should and an Oscar nomination seems likely. She is in love, we see it and feel it in every breath of her performance, and despite knowing the inherent dangers of her love, she will not back away. There is a will within her no one expects, least of all herself.
Having never thought much about Ansel Elgort, watching him here was a revelation. The young actor is outstanding. His Tony is darker, nastier than that of the original, a street kid who knows the hell he is about to bring down on both himself and Maria. But love waits for no man (or woman) and nothing is going to keep these two apart. They both sing with a purity, a sense that they are governed by their feelings for each other.
Spielberg even updates the character Anybodys (Iris Menas), portrayed as a tomboy in the original but here clearly a transgender boy. Not exploitive nor used for shock value, the casting choice was brilliant. Anybodys fits perfectly into the background of the story. It is all in the lines and Menas’ superb performance.
And Rita Morena, a Supporting Actress Oscar winner from the original film, is cast in a new role as Valentina, replacing Doc, who runs the local drug store when drug stores were so much more. There is a lovely connection to the original film through Moreno I will not spoil, so watch for it.
Stand out song and dance numbers include “America” sung superbly by Ariana DeBose, a standout as Anita. But really, no use singling out any one number; all the song and dance sequences burst with energy and beauty. They are each flawless.
The film moves, and in that movement and song, captures the anger of the young people as they struggle with impending adulthood, seeing all too clearly their future amidst the crumbling neighbourhood. There is an urgency to the movie, as though the lives of the kids are speeding too fast and out of control, and their hatred is starting to consume them. One hopes that perhaps they can put aside their hatred and, like Maria and Tony, find “a place for us.”
The young actors are superb, not a flaw among their performances. The standouts are Zegler, DeBose, Moreno, Elgort, Alvarez and Faist (who is electrifying). Oscar nominations could come for them all but definitely for Zegler and Faist.
Spielberg’s West Side Story, and it is clearly his, is miraculous and might just be the year’s finest film. Superbly written by Tony Kushner, his third film with Spielberg after Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012), the film speaks to modern troubles without ever stepping out of the time frame of the 50s.
Sixty years after the release of the original, 60 years after it collected 10 Academy Awards, West Side Story is back, and might just romp to victory at the Academy Awards again.
I have never reacted to a musical like this. While I loved Cabaret (1972), I am not sure I fully understood its impact on the genre until later in my life, and both All That Jazz (1979) and Hair (1979) have had a profound impact on my life and work as a film critic. The original West Side Story is a film I admire, but in some ways, I saw it as a lost chance to make something extraordinary. Don’t misunderstand me, the choreography was astonishing, and the camera work remarkable, but I could never get past the acting. Nothing like that exists in this new West Side Story. It is in every way a revelation, a musical film for the ages.
Methinks, if there is justice, Oscars await.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.