Review – Stirring Sondheim & Spielberg Spectacle (“West Side Story”)

When I saw the trailer for Speilberg’s vision of remaking the original 1961 musical, I was shocked to see how good it looked! Could the man who gave us Jaws and E.T. actually pull a hat trick, re-do a classic, and make it watchable?  

If you know anything about this highly acclaimed 1961 musical, or have seen it like me, you’ll be enthralled by many things. First of all, it still follows the same beats and plot as the original movie (see review below), but with some minor changes, like locations and dance updates, which I’m happy to report, are all for the better! Being a huge theater geek and musical fan, I anticipated a dismal attempt at replicating or remaking the 1961 movie, but I was shocked at how good this was. Directed by the masterful Steven Speilberg, there were times where he copied the camera angles and filmed it so brilliantly, that it was as if the 1961 film never existed, and this movie was made instead in 1961 and then given an improved blu-ray update!

Screenwriter & playwright Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Angels in America) has crafted a wonderful, grittier script, fleshing out the characters more and thereby improving on the story. Our hero, ex-Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) is now a struggling ex-con, while his counterpart, Shark leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), is a prize fighter. Beautiful Maria (Rachel Zegler) is still Bernardo’s sister, but does not work in any clothing shop with strong-willed Anita (Ariana DeBose). The owner of Doc’s pharmacy & soda shop is now Valentina (Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie), and Anybodys (Iris Menas) is portrayed as a trans. But the real stand-out is Riff (Mike Faist) who, as the Jets leader, delivers a dynamic performance.

But what’s a musical without some great singin’ & dancin’, right? Tony Award-winning Justin Peck came up with some outstanding choreography that borders on jaw-dropping. The school dance is seriously amazing, the dancing from the apartment to the streets (“America“) is fantastic, and the often-maligned “Cool” dance is updated with a sorta martial-arts flair. My favorite is the wildly comedic “Gee, Officer Krupke” in the police station. Even the simple “I Feel Pretty” is improved as Maria now sings it with others inside Gimbels Dept. Store, opening up the possibilities.

And in case you’re asking, yes, the main cast did their own singing! And the actors, this time around, consists of real ethnic origins, not white actors with brown make-up pretending to be Puerto Rican. And check out the locations! They actually shot it on the New York streets of Harlem, Brooklyn, and parts of New Jersey for authenticity. None of this shooting in Canada or Yugoslavia or filming the whole thing on a set with a green screen or CGI! Nice!! And let’s not overlook the grand musical scoring of Leonard Bernstein or the timeless lyrics of the late, great, Steven Sondheim.

Another cool thing is the stylized, retro cinematography by Speilberg’s favorite, Janusz Kamiński. There are times you think you’re looking at an exact reproduction of the 1961 movie with primary colors, low angles, and duplicating certain scenes, then along comes Speilberg’s signature lighting, close-up’s, and his special camera moves. Even at a lengthy 156 minutes, it’s still a joy to watch and listen to, and this coming from someone who hates remakes, reboots, and reimaginings with a passion. If you liked the original, you’ll love this one! It’s not so much a remake as it is a “tweaked” version. Enjoy!

**Now showing only in theaters   

West Side Story (1961)

*sigh* They just don’t make ’em like they use to, do they? Okay, so all the Puerto Rican kids were white and the lead, Natalie Wood, had to be dubbed by singer Marni Nixon, but wow! What a movie! A musical version of Romeo & Juliet with incredible dancing and cinematography? Bring it!

It’s NYC in the sweltering 1950’s and there’s a gang war going on in the Upper East Side between the Puerto Rican “Sharks” vs the Caucasian “Jets”. But these gang members tend to break into stylized, eclectic dance numbers every so often, thanks to the incredible choreography of co-director, Jerome Robbins. Leading the Sharks gang is fierce Bernardo (George Chakaris), whose lovely sister, Maria (Wood, with a heavy accent) is engaged to Chino (Jose DeVega). On the other end is the Jet’s ex-leader, street-wise Tony (Richard Beymer), who works at Doc’s drugstore and lets his pal, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), run the gang. Throw into this mix the law: racist, brutish Lt. Schrank (Simon Oakland) and beat cop, Officer Krupke (William Bramley) who are always trying to stop these two gangs from killing each other.

But ‘love’ has to go and ruin everything and, at a high-school dance (yes, I know, they’re clearly not teenagers), while the Sharks & Jets are mixing it up, Tony falls for Maria, forming the classic Romeo & Juliet tragedy to follow. As Tony professes his love for Maria via the famous balcony scene, his gang waits down at Doc’s to plot their Shark attack, which Doc (Ned Glass) is opposed to. Just like the Shakespearean play, Tony just wants peace between the Montagues & Capulets. . . I mean, the Sharks & the Jets, but neither side is listening. Even Maria’s BFF, Anita (Rita Moreno) tries to persuade the Jets, but they practically rape her! 

Things go from bad to worse when gung-ho Riff is killed by Bernardo during a heated rumble! In a sudden fit of revenge, Tony stabs and kills Bernardo, inciting a small riot and causing Tony to go on the run. Maria freaks at the news but still loves her man nonetheless. In retaliation, Anita angrily goes to Doc’s and tells everyone there that Chino has killed Maria! When Tony hears this, he decides to die by means of “suicide by gang member”. He goes out into the streets, calling for Chino to end him, but Maria shows up and. . . too bad it’s a little too late!

Based on the hugely popular Broadway stage musical by Arthur Laurents & the late, great, Stephen Sondheim, this adapted version by multi-Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Ernest Lehman (Sound of Music, Hello, Dolly!) could do no wrong, especially with directors Jerome Robbins (who got fired for too many excessive takes) and Robert Wise (The Hindenburg, The Day The Earth Stood Still) at the helm, plus the combination of Sondheim’s incredible lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s music in songs like “When You’re A Jet”, “Maria”, “America”, “Tonight”, “I Feel Pretty”, and “Somewhere”. Even the wildly off-beat and crazy, beatnik-staged “Cool” is both bizarre and fun to watch. 

There is SO much to say about this movie that I could fill up another 20 paragraphs with the awesome dancing & eye-popping choreography, the use of actual NYC locations, the backstories of how this movie got made (Elvis was almost cast!), and the mind-boggling TEN Oscars this movie won! A musical? Winning TEN Academy Awards, including Best Picture?? Inconceivable! Do yourself a favor and rent/stream this movie again and see why it’s the second highest-grossing musical of all time (Sound of Music is #1).  

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