Steven Spielberg's West Side Story is a gritty reimagination that soars

    Relive Steven Spielberg's revitalizing take on West Side Story, where gritty realism meets old-fashioned Hollywood charm, creating a musical masterpiece with a poignant message.

    West Side Story (2021) (Source: The Georgetown Voice)

    West Side Story (2021) (Source: The Georgetown Voice)

    In a world filled with Hollywood remakes, Steven Spielberg's decision to tackle a new version of West Side Story raised eyebrows. The iconic tale of warring New York street gangs, a modern Romeo and Juliet, had faced its fair share of criticism over the years, especially regarding the portrayal and casting of its Puerto Rican characters. The 1961 movie adaptation, in particular, had garnered mixed reviews for its choice of Natalie Wood in the lead role of María and the use of dark brown makeup on Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican cast member. Fast forward sixty years, and Rita Moreno is not only an executive producer of Spielberg's West Side Story but also delivers a poignant performance as Valentina, the widow of Doc. Her presence serves as a guide on how to approach this movie - as a loving tribute and a gentle correction.

    A gritty and realistic vision

    Spielberg and his collaborator, playwright Tony Kushner, offer a grittier and more realistic portrayal of the Upper West Side in the 1950s. The movie dives into San Juan Hill, a working-class neighborhood predominantly inhabited by Black and Latino residents, as it faces demolition to make way for developments like Lincoln Center. The tension between the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, and their white rivals, the Jets, is palpable, and their confrontations are startlingly violent. What adds to the authenticity is the casting of actors of Latino descent for the roles of the Sharks. David Alvarez shines as Bernardo, the headstrong leader, while Ariana DeBose impresses as Anita, his girlfriend. Rachel Zegler makes her screen debut as Bernardo's sister, María, and delivers a remarkable performance.

    A timeless love story

    The heart of the story remains unchanged: María's ill-fated romance with Tony, a former Jet, played by Ansel Elgort. The film captures their clandestine meeting on María's fire escape, singing Tonight, one of the many classic Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim songs splendidly revived in the movie. What sets this adaptation apart is Spielberg's exceptional direction of these musical numbers. Although it's his first musical, his innate sense of rhythm and visual flow shines through. He embraces the style of classic Hollywood, with long takes that let the dancing shine. When the Jets and Sharks meet at a school dance, the intensity of their rivalry and the power of their movements pull you in.

    A star-studded cast

    While the cast delivers outstanding performances, Mike Faist, portraying Riff, the Jets' leader, stands out as one of the film's highlights. The only weak link appears to be Ansel Elgort, who, despite his singing and dancing skills, lacks the emotional depth to match his livelier co-stars, especially Rachel Zegler. Spielberg can't erase the dated elements of West Side Story, but he knows it still holds a poignant message about racism and violence, relevant in any era. What makes this adaptation resonate is its paradoxical nature - gritty and realistic yet irresistibly old-fashioned, a rarity in contemporary Hollywood. By the movie's end, it's not the romance or the gang drama that moves you most. It's Spielberg's unwavering belief in the magic of cinema, reigniting your faith in the power of movies for a mesmerizing two-and-a-half hours.

    (Several parts of the text in this article, including the title, were generated with the help of an AI tool.)