The Movie Guru: Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ brings new depths to classic taleDec 09, 2021 09:27AM ● By Jenniffer Wardell
In Steven Spielberg’s eyes, “West Side Story” is about far more than just a romance.
In his version of the classic story, opening in theaters this Friday, an entire community is caught up in the potential tragedy. No matter who wins in the turf war between the Jets and the Sharks, gentrification and the lack of opportunities is an enemy poised to sweep in and destroy them all. Though this approach does lessen some of the original movie’s fairy tale magic, it gives the movie a deeper emotional resonance as well.
For those who don’t know, “West Side Story” is a 1950s adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” set on Manhattan’s West Side. This is before all the fancy developments came in, when the area was the desperately poor territory of street gangs and full of immigrants desperate for a better life. The younger sister of the leader of the Sharks and a wayward member of the Jets fall in love, sparking a powder keg that could make the small community explode.
Many of the changes in Spielberg’s version are designed to highlight the immigrant experience. Rather than a fantastical vision of the city, the new movie opens with the crumbling, impoverished streets these people actually had to live in. The Puerto Rican characters are all played by Latino actors and actresses, a marked change from the original 1961 film. None of the Spanish dialog is subtitled, and though most of it is easy to pick up from context it also gives people who only speak English some powerful insight. The corner store is no longer run by Doc, a white guy, but by his widow Rita Moreno. “I Feel Pretty” is now set in a department store at night, where all the singers are cleaning staff.
For some people, however, the biggest change will be that “Somewhere” is now sung by Moreno. The switch transforms the song from a romantic ballad to a delicate but profound message of hope for an entire community, and in Moreno’s hands it hits with every ounce of emotion you could hope for. Though die-hard fans of the 1961 original might be angry at the change, it’s impossible to deny that the results are exquisite.
Rachel Zegler, who plays the young Maria, is exquisite in her own way. A newcomer to the big screen, Zegler brings both a luminous innocence and fierce intelligence to a character who finally looks as young as she’s supposed to. Ariana DeBose has a wonderful ferocity and power as Anita, and Mike Faist brings a ton of heartbreaking nuance to the role of Riff. Even when she’s not singing, Moreno commands the screen every moment she’s on it.
In fact, the only weak spot in the cast is Ansel Elgort, who plays the role of Tony. He’s not bad, but he never really rises above the level of OK. With everyone else’s performances so rich and vivid, he sticks out like a sore spot.
Still, he’s a small part of a richly told story, one that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Utah Film Critics Association. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at [email protected]