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Review: 'West Side Story'

West Side Story is a stunning cinematic achievement. It’s a movie for the ages.

I’m referring to the original movie adaptation, released in 1961. The one starring Natalie Wood that was co-directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. The one that went on to win a staggering 10 Oscars.

When I first heard that Steven Spielberg was working on what appeared to be a remake, I could only ask, “Why?” The original version was a motion picture milestone of a movie. It ranked among the best movies of all time.

It was even more special to me because Robert Wise directed it. I had been a fan of his movies since I was a kid, growing up in the Fifties, watching The Day the Earth Stood Still (1950) whenever it was broadcast on NBC’s beloved Saturday Night at the Movies, on a regular basis.

Years later, I had the honor and privilege of meeting Robert Wise when I was selected to participate in a week-long director’s workshop that was held in Lake Tahoe.

The night before the workshop, he graciously invited to have dinner with him and his wife. I will never forget that evening.

So, I confess, I have a special reverence for Robert Wise and many of his films, including the original West Side Story. His career began at an early age. He edited Citizen Kane (1941) when he was just 25 years old (the same age as Orson Welles). He then went on to direct a string of hits including movies from The Sound of Music (1965) to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1982) the first movie adaptation of the Star Trek TV series.

For me, his version of West Side Story was, and still is a masterpiece, though some regard it as a flawed masterpiece.

There was controversy from the very beginning about the casting. Particularly the casting of Natalie Wood for the role of Maria. Natalie was not Puerto Rican. Many people never got past that or got over it.

It was part of an era in Hollywood when there was a great deal of insensitivity about proper casting and political correctness. Italians frequently appeared as Native Americans in Westerns, Caucasians appeared as Asians (who can forget Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

It wasn’t right. But movie audiences were nudged to overlook all that and understand that it was all about star power and box office appeal. And money, of course.

Just one further note that will infuriate a lot of people. I thought that Natalie Wood turned in a powerful performance.

I can recall going to a classic movie revival venue back in the 1990s to see the movie up on the big screen again. When it ended, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Such is the power of great cinema. It immerses you. It transports you. It involves you, on a deeply emotional level.

But now comes Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story, based more on the original book that led to the Broadway and movie musical adaptations. Truthfully, I was a little predisposed not to like it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Spielberg’s work. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would even attempt to remake a movie classic like West Side Story.

It seemed unnecessary. It could be argued that the definitive movie adaptation had already been done. For me, it fell squarely into the neverending, hotly debated discussion about remaking other classic movies like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca. Yes, that’s actually been proposed that over the years.

While I suppose it’s fair game, I wonder if anyone factors in the irreplaceable, rare talent who starred in those movies and made them cinematic treasures. Just sayin’.

So, it was with great trepidation that I went to see an early screening of West Side Story this week. I was poised to pick it apart. But, much to my surprise, that never happened.

What it has going for it are all the story material, as well as the music, songs and dance numbers, that made the original movie unforgettable. And it has the Spielberg touch, lovingly recreating the story in his terms with freshness and fire.

There really isn’t much not to like about the new version of West Side Story. The casting and performances are solid. Ansel Elgort’s Tony bears more than a passing resemblance to a young, vibrant Marlon Brando.

Rachel Zegler’s Maria is a bonafide teenager, as the part requires. Zegler was in high school when she was picked to play the part.

Raised in New Jersey by an American father and Columbian mother, she is not Puerto Rican, despite all the complaints about Natalie Wood’s ethnicity over the years and the pressure to address this issue in this new version of West Side Story. In fairness, 20 other members of the cast are Puerto Rican.

The rewriting (by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tony Kushner) and restaging (by Steven Spielberg) is both intelligent and clever – a loving tribute in many ways to the original film.

While I had heard about Rita Moreno’s cameo, I wasn’t expecting her to play such a major role—that of the drug store owners’ widow, who runs that store and is a friend to The Jets. It will be interesting to see if Rita might win a second Oscar for her second appearance in a movie adaptation of West Side Story. She certainly deserves it.

Truthfully, this version qualifies to be nominated for the same ten categories that applied to the original. It’s that good, across the boards.

One of the breakthroughs of the original was the bold idea of taking it to the streets, instead of shooting on Hollywood sound stages as the studios would have preferred to do back then. The decision to do that was a very big deal in 1961. Kudos to Robert Wise.

Modern camera technology makes that an easier task in 2020, but it’s still a challenge to stage the scenes in new ways. Technically, the new version is brilliant. There are camera moves that the technical crew on the 1961 movie could only dream of.

Spielberg adds many creative touches with the staging of the scenes, in terms of timing, staging and choreography. Everything synchs to the songs—braking cars and spray bottles of window cleaner.

This new West Side Story is grittier than the original with much of the footage rendered in cold, stark blue tones. The dialog is edgier. The violence (with the exception of the pivotal rape scene) is more dramatic and realistic, There is Spanish dialog. Not subtitled.

There are new settings for the familiar scenes in the original—a Gimbels Department Store after hours, a city morgue, and a chapel with a stone crypt that harkens to the medieval Romeo and Juliet theme upon which West Side Story is based.

When you think about it, Shakespeare’s works have been re-staged and re-imagined countless times on stage and screen over the centuries. The lesson here is that a truly timeless story can stand the test of reinterpretation for new generations of audiences.

In this case, with West Side Story, it doesn’t diminish the magic of the 1961 version. It will be around forever. Flaws and all. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another perspective and a different vision. Particularly when it’s the vision of one of this generation’s master filmmakers.


West Side Story is only in theaters now.


Photo Credits: Copyright 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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