Spielberg’s vision of the classic play is more than Okay By Me in America
When word got out that lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away, it broke everyone’s hearts, because of how he helped shaped the legendary songs in “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” and “Into the Woods,” among others.
When the new film version of “West Side Story” premiered at the Jazz Center in NYC last Tuesday, the new director Steven Spielberg, honored him for all he’s done, and wishes to return the favor by honoring his work. I saw the 1961 movie, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise and starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, and it was an instant classic. It was the kind that makes us appreciate how epic and profound movie musicals were before commercialism kept pushing movies to the very limit.
Many of us were skeptical about why this one had to be made, but it turns out to be a whole more than that. In fact, Spielberg accomplishes his mission of honoring the story and music. Obviously, the 1961 version is the better one, but this one comes in second place. It’s almost like Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” being best version since the Judy Garland one, when he uses the right actors to follow the same story in his own vision.
You know the story, inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” There are two wars on the streets of New York City between two groups of men. The white Americans are the Jets, while the Puerto Ricans are the Sharks, and they’re always at each other’s throats with the Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) breaking them up.
The leader of the Jets, Riff (Mike Faist), persuades his ex-convict buddy Tony (Ansel Elgort) to go with him to a dance, where he meets and falls for the beautiful Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler), who is the sister of the leader of the Jets, Bernardo (David Alvarez). This forbidden love forces the Jets and the Sharks to have the showdown of all showdowns, while Tony promises Maria that he’ll end the violence.
Rita Moreno, who played Bernardo’s love and Maria’s closest confidant Anita in the 1961 movie, is cast here as the drug store owner, who hires Tony and becomes a mother figure to him. She’s also listed as an executive producer, here.
I needed to process my emotions before the review embargo lifted, because I wanted to make sure I was blinded by anything, because of what I’ve mentioned about its new vision, but I now realize I wasn’t blind and I wasn’t oblivious. I was marveled at how well Spielberg guides the right actors, dance choreographers, and composers to make sure “West Side Story” wasn’t self-congratulatory, but dazzling and uplifting.
Elgort, in his best role since “Baby Driver,” has a certain youthful edge that makes him stylish and charming as Tony. Zegler lives up to Natalie Woods’ spirit and beauty as Maria. Faist has the whip-smart attitude as Riff, while Alvarez uses the right vulnerabilities as Bernardo. Stoll delivers the goods and tone as Lt. Shrank. Moreno excels in both versions with her unique acting skills and versatility. And the new actress to play Anita is Ariana DeBose, who is powerful and strong in the role in almost every way possible. All these actors have no mind to replace the original cast, but rather wish to see what they can bring out in these characters.
Some of the best numbers in the movie, with Leonard Bernstein’s music being conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, include “America,” both versions of “Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupp,” and “Jet Song.” Matter fact, both movies made me love these songs and numbers because of how well the composers take Sondheim’s lyrics to different heights, and how choreographed the singers and dancers are.
Both “West Side Story” versions are over 2 hours long. Spielberg’s version has no intermission, but you’re in for a magical experience. I know all the talk about why it has to be made, but when you see it, you’ll know why. It’s one of the year’s best movies.
Opens Everywhere Next Week.