It's a Knockout!
Everyone always shrieks, “Why remake this movie?” Sometimes it’s justified, but some remakes are horrible. The original was good enough. However, in the case of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, it is actually an improvement over the original 1961 version.
Times have changed over the past 60 years since the original film was made by United Artists and the Mirisch Corporation/ 7 Arts Productions. Audiences now are more aware of casting and how it should be correct for the characters. When Natalie Wood, of Russian background, was cast as Puerto Rican Maria, people were aghast. It was ridiculous casting, but Wood was a big, big star at the time, so she got the part. Even with her phony Latino accent, audiences just blinked and crossed themselves. Terrific dancer George Chakiris is Greek, but he managed to bluff his way through playing Bernardo, who was supposed also be Puerto Rican as Maria’s brother. He fooled everybody with his dark makeup and dyed black hair and he also won an Oscar®!
At least Rita Moreno was a real, live Puerto Rican when she originated the part of fiery Anita and won an Oscar® as well. Fortunately, Moreno is still around to brighten the new version as Valentina, the widow of Doc (Ned Glass), who runs the candy store where the kids hang out. Spielberg was wise enough to have a part written for her by Tony Kushner. She shines in the song given to her (“Somewhere”) and we all smile to see the 90-year old actress, singer, and dancer wiping everybody else off the screen.
Ansel Elgort as Caucasian Tony is an improved choice over the original Richard Beymer. Elgort was wildly popular in the smash hit Baby Driver, and he continues his youthful masculine appeal as a bit more grown up. One can see why Maria (the talented newcomer Rachel Zegler) goes crazy for him. Zegler sings like a bird and was a fine Spielberg choice to give an authentic slant to a Hispanic young girl in love for the first time.
Tony Kushner, who wrote the shattering ode to gay men and their plight with AIDS in the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Angels in America,” has tackled the original Shakespearean play about Romeo and Juliet and turned it into the newly-polished West Side Story. This time he wrote the characters as Hispanics as they are supposed to be, and the Caucasians as more realistic New Yorkers.
The dance scenes are, of course, fabulously performed by dancers who seem to be the best ones in show business. The numbers originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins are newly imagined and choreographed by young Justin Peck, He has more of an understanding about the camera and fills the screen with color, motion and flashes of legs and arms that are like boiling water overflowing the kettle. Astounding, eye-catching and emotionally stirring is the favorite “America,” which grabs the audience and stirs emotions as no other song does in the Leonard Bernstein score and Stephen Sondheim lyrics.
Special note must be made for two of the movie’s major roles. Ariana DeBose takes over the exciting role of Anita from Rita Moreno. DeBose, 30, is fabulously exciting and talented and can sing and dance like a maniac. She plays the part with her own interpretation and does not copy Moreno’s original style at all. The role of Bernardo, as played in the original by George Chakiris, is taken over by David Alvarez, 27. Handsome, sexy, and unbelievably talented, Alvarez was saved from the wrecking heap by casting agent Cindy Tolan, who remembered him. Alvarez had almost given up show business. He won a Tony at age 14 for “Billy Elliot,” joined the Army, got out and went to college--- and disappeared from the world of show business. Thankfully, he’s on screen showing us what a talented guy he has remained.
My only major complaint would be that the fight scenes are too realistic and brutal. In films today they show all the blood and guts to make it realistic. But, of course, it does make it true to life.
As in Shakespeare’s play, the film does not end well, and is, of course, one of the all-time great romantic tragedies. But remember the colorful dancing and the great music and your spirits will be lifted by this carefully re-imagined look at West Side Story. It’s a knockout!
(Released by 20th Century Studios through Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Rated “PG-13” for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking.)