By Janie Walenda
At first, remaking “West Side Story” sounds like a bad idea. First of all, the original movie stands as one of the best movie musicals of all time, despite its outdated practices of dubbing and casting. Secondly, movie musicals are a dying genre. While it still survives due to Disney and animation, movie musicals are no longer the spectacular blockbusters they used to be. With a disappointing opening weekend, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” will not disprove this second point. However, against the odds, this version of the classic story not only holds a candle to the original but cleverly builds upon it.
One of the film’s strengths lies in its technical design. The film is clearly Steven Spielberg’s passion project, as he meticulously crafted every frame. Not only are the costumes gorgeous, but they help serve the story in a way that is unusual nowadays. The colors create a clear visual divide that contributes to the defined aesthetic of the film. The blocking and choreography are both inventive and engaging. Instead of being restricted to one setting like in a stage production, a movie can interact more with its environment, something this film uses to its full advantage.
Rachel Zegler as Maria
It’s nearly impossible to discuss all the characters in “West Side Story,” simply because there are so many worth talking about. The characters already had plenty of personality in the original film, but thanks to phenomenal acting and new additions to the script, every character felt more realistic. Tony and Maria are more complex than previous iterations, thanks to great performances by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. The changes to both of their characters, especially to Tony, bring a lot of humanity and realism to characters that are often bland. While the scene in the museum was sweet, I missed how cute the scene in the dress shop was. I enjoyed most of the location changes, but while the museum scene developed the characters a bit, it lacked the fun of the dress shop scene.
Anita is a scene-stealer in every adaption and this one is no different. Ariana Debose lights up the screen and grounds the tragedy of the third act. I didn’t like her relationship with Bernardo (David Alvarez) quite as much, as it lacked a lot of the playfulness of the original. This change does fit with the changes to Bernardo’s character, as he is much angrier in this adaptation. This anger contrasts well with a more laid-back Riff. Played by Mike Faist, Riff was another scene-stealer who also reflects a broader change made to the Jets in general.
The bar for Anita was extremely high and Ariana Debose leapt over it
This version of “West Side Story” adds deeper motivation to both the Jets and the Sharks. While they are fighting for control of their neighborhood, it’s ultimately a fruitless fight, as the block is about to be torn down to make way for more prosperous residents. This adds an extra layer of tragedy to all the events of the film, knowing that ultimately they have the same goal. Additionally, the film makes a subtle distinction between the Sharks, who are fighting for their families and communities, and the Jets, who seem to be younger and who only have each other.
One of the biggest differences in this adaptation is the order of the songs. Multiple songs, such as “Cool” and “I Feel Pretty” have been moved around. This works quite well, as it freshens up the story without taking away any iconic moments. Another massive musical change is giving “Somewhere” to the new character of Valentina. This character replaces Doc from the original and is played by Rita Moreno. Moreno played Anita in the original “West Side Story” and won an Oscar for her portrayal of the character. In the original context of the story, “Somewhere” is sung by Tony and Maria after the rumble. In the new version, Valentina sings it as she remembers her past and reflects on the future of the Sharks and the Jets, many of whom she has watched grow up. Intercut with Anita dealing with the aftermath of the rumble, as well as Maria and Tony reconciling, the song is truly touching.
Rita Moreno’s Valentina is one of many characters given more depth
“West Side Story” can feel a bit stilted and out of touch at times. Despite the modern techniques and updates, it is still an old-schooled Broadway musical. The tough gangs do ballet and Maria and Tony still fall in love in less than a day. But thanks to all of the talent and passion that shines through, “West Side Story” is a moving film that can connect with viewers from every generation.
West Side Story is available to watch in a theater near you.
Janie Walenda is a freshman Global Business major and an A&E writer for Cedars. She enjoys watching musicals and movies as well as rereading the same books ten times over.