Movie review: Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ is a worthy remake

Steven Spielberg has long been one of my favorite film directors. Few in Hollywood have a resume matching his, which spans action-adventure classics like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park, beloved family films like E.T., and Oscar-winning masterpieces like Schindler’s List. 

So I was very, very curious when I heard that he was directing a new adaptation of the Broadway musical West Side Story. The musical – which is about warring gangs and a tragic romance set in 1950s New York City – didn’t immediately jump out at me as falling under “the Spielberg brand.” However, I always respect creatives who are willing to get out of their comfort zone and try something new, and once I saw all the praise this adaptation was receiving from critics, I knew I had to see it in the theater. 

West Side Story is good – really, really good – and it’s one of those rare remakes that actually feels important and necessary. Spielberg and the cast and crew are able to shine some new light on a story we’ve seen many times before, with a high production value that makes it worth a trip to the theater.

Even if you haven’t seen West Side Story before (either the previous film or the stage musical), you probably already know that it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ill-fated love story Romeo and Juliet. Puerto Rican immigrant Maria (sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks gang) falls in love with Jets gang member Tony at a community dance. Their romance faces opposition from their family and friends, and a gang fight results in bloodshed that eventually dooms their love. While the overall story may be a tragedy, it’s also a testament to the transforming, healing power of love. 

Apparently Spielberg has always wanted to make a musical (something I didn’t know despite being a major Spielberg fan), and in a quote I found from back in 2004, he said he wanted his film to be adapted from an old-fashioned classic like West Side Story or Singin’ in the Rain. He fell in love with the music of West Side Story as a kid, and dedicated the film to his father, who passed away during the film’s production. 

West Side Story was, I think, a smarter choice for a remake than Singin’ in the Rain (though who knows, maybe Spielberg could have pulled that off too). I watched a regional stage production of West Side Story several years ago, but didn’t remember a lot of details besides the overarching plot and the songs that everybody knows, like Tonight and Somewhere. However, Spielberg’s movie seems to have added more depth and nuance to the characters, while still packing the movie with lively, colorful song and dance numbers.

I always love period pieces that take place in a historical setting but are told through a modern lens – i.e. stories that nail the historical details and a specific sense of place and time, but also reflect how modern audiences might view that past time period. It’s a tricky balance to get right, because you don’t want your characters in the movie sounding like they just stepped out of 2021, but you also have to address the time period’s outdated attitudes (such as the cultural opposition to interracial relationships in West Side Story). 

One of the other interesting themes that Spielberg’s adaptation reflects on is the cycle of poverty and violence, and how it’s hard to escape that destructive pull. The Jets are trying to hold onto territory in a war that’s ultimately pointless, because this rundown, depressing scrap of land is about to be bulldozed. They view the Sharks as a threat and label them as “other,” even though their real enemy is the broken social system they grew in. These boys spent their childhoods feeling unwanted and unloved, and their gang offers them a sense of family while at the same time continuing the cycle of violence. The Puerto Ricans discover that despite America’s reputation as a melting pot and land of opportunity, the so-called “American Dream” isn’t always accessible to everyone.  

I really don’t have any criticisms about this movie. It’s fairly long, clocking in at about 2 and a half hours, but it didn’t feel long as I was watching it. I appreciated that Spielberg chose not to include subtitles during the scenes where Spanish is spoken; it heightens the realism of those scenes, and immerses you in a time and place that’s different from what film audiences are typically used to. The cinematography is gorgeous, with interesting camera angles I haven’t seen used in typical movie musicals.

It’s unfortunate this movie didn’t perform better in its opening weekend, but maybe positive word of mouth will give it a boost over the coming holiday weeks (and after we’ve all seen the new Spider-Man film). If it receives some nominations during awards season, that could attract some attention as well.

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