Adapted by Tony Kushner and directed by filmmaking titan Steven Spielberg, West Side Story is practically – save for a couple of lyrical tweaks and a blissfully reimagined role for Rita Moreno’s drugstore owner, Valentina – a scene-by-scene remake of the 1961 “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired classic.
Which inevitably begs the same question posed to every remake: why? In this case, there’s no straightforward answer. Some aspects of Spielberg’s musical do improve upon the original material, yet overall, the disparate elements are sewn together too loosely to function as a single piece.
Spielberg falls into this new film genre with ease and confidence, delivering energetic camerawork and a pleasantly (albeit strangely muted) retro aesthetic. The songs, reworked slightly by the late Stephen Sondheim, are as delightful as they ever were; a particular standout being Moreno’s rendition of “Somewhere”, which packs a greater emotional punch when sung by the veteran actress. Meanwhile, the story’s present day political commentary on division, gentrification, immigration, and poverty is fairly ham-fisted – but forgivably so. There’s also a degree of justice to be found in the casting of Latin actors where the 1961 version had white actors in brownface, and the fact that Spielberg’s film will certainly launch many of these actors to meteoric success.
The issues with this reiteration of West Side Story come down to what should be the film’s beating heart: the whirlwind, dreamlike, swooning romance between Maria and Tony. Instead, their love story saps the film of its narrative momentum and denies it of the emotional impact it deserves.
A large part of that is the miscasting of Ansel Elgort in the romantic lead. The 27-year-old fails to summon any of the charisma and cool the role requires, a lack which extends to his ability to conjure any chemistry with the character of Maria. Zegler, on the other hand, showcases an enchanting voice and fares impressively in her debut role, despite being poorly served by the writing and her co-star. Tony and Maria’s romance is made to feel all the shallower by Spielberg’s emphasis on the greater socio-political forces at work and attempt at street-level naturalism; certainly, it isn’t credible as the source of the life-changing (and life-ending) events that ensue.
Both characters are also dwarfed by a phenomenal supporting cast, in particular by Anita (the film’s true star, Ariana DeBose), Bernardo (David Alvarez), and Riff (Mike Faist). All three have more complex interior lives than the primary couple and navigate the screen with easy magnetism. And because they are so much more compelling, their arcs further skew the film’s gravity away from Tony and Maria. Sadly though, the age-old tale lives and dies by its primary romance, and this West Side Story’s star-crossed lovers aren’t compelling enough to tether the film’s various elements nor lend the story any emotional stakes; all of which culminates in an ending that lands with a dull thud.
Watch Spielberg’s West Side Story for the supporting cast and some visually compelling numbers, return to Robert Wise’s 1961 film for the superior iteration.