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Review: 'West Side Story' new, but improved?

Posted at 2:21 PM, Dec 12, 2021

Tom Santilli is a professional film critic, TV personality, host and the Executive Producer of Movie Show Plus.

It's more than a challenging task to remake a movie that is already known to be a classic, but if anyone can pull it off, it's Steven Spielberg.

The iconic musical "West Side Story" was the highest-grossing film of 1961, earning 12 Oscar nominations (winning 11 of them including Best Picture), and set a new standard for what the movie musical could be.

The good news is that any fans of the original will most likely love what Spielberg has done, creating a splendid cinematic doppleganger while maintaining much of the 1961 film's charm, not to mention its rough - or what could be considered to be "outdated" - edges.

It doesn't quite justify an answer to the overriding question some might have though: Why? Why remake "West Side Story"?

Grade: B

Of course, it has become the modus operandi in Hollywood to take the old and repackage it as new, a burgeoning new quest to quench the nostalgic desires of the original fan base while hopefully bringing a new generation on board as well. Most remakes of classic films almost assuredly fall short when compared to their original counter-part (I can't even think of one exception), but the comparisons are inevitable. Is this new "West Side Story" good or better than the original "West Side Story"? Of course not. So what then, is the point?

I struggle with this question, but there is a satisfying answer. There were some portions of the old film that are not acceptable...take for example, the use of brown-face make-up on white actors and dancers in the original. Even Puerto-Rican Rita Moreno was forced to where brown make-up so that her tone matched that of the others on-screen. It's an important change to take a movie and update it with actual Latin-American actors and actresses. But all film must be approached within the context of history...to NOT show or ban the original "West Side Story" for this reason for example, would be nothing short of verging on censorship. This is of course an ongoing debate that may not have a satisfactory conclusion, and perhaps this reason alone justifies Spielberg's re-make.

The story, itself loosely based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, is a forbidden love story between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler), two star-crossed young lovers on different sides of the track in New York City, circa the 1950s. Tony is a member of the white street gang known as The Jets, while Maria's brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), is a member of the rival Puerto Rican gang The Sharks. "Hamilton" background stand-out Ariana DeBose plays the spit-fire Anita, the role famously occupied by Rita Moreno in the original that landed her an Oscar and one step closer to her eventual EGOT (the famed Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners, of which Moreno is one of just 16 people and one of just four women to have ever achieved this highest entertainment honor).

Moreno is one of the links to the past, but she appears here in a newly created role, Valentina, widow to the Doc character (Ned Glass). Wouldn't that be something if she is nominated yet again for the same movie, but a different role, remade 60 years later (it's not out of the realm of possibility...she's tremendous). And Ariana DeBose (recent Best Supporting Actress Winner from the Detroit Film Critics Society) fills in the shoes of Anita and then some, and is by far the most electric part of the new movie.

What the new "West Side Story" gets wrong though, starts and ends with Ansel Elgort...he's no Richard Beymer and seems a bit over his head, which really becomes a drag on the overall proceedings. Late in the film, it becomes evident what Spielberg must have seen in Rachel Zegler, but she too comes across as a bit stiff and green for far too long.

To re-iterate: Spielberg's "West Side Story" is not nearly as good as the 1961 "West Side Story," and if years from now you feel like you want to watch "West Side Story," I couldn't imagine anyone choosing the new version over the old one.

If you can get over the "why" of it all, you'll be able to enjoy "West Side Story" for what it is: A happy celebration and remembrance of one of the greatest musicals ever made.

Grade: BGenre: Musical, Drama.Run Time: 2 hours 36 minutes.Rated PG-13.Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno, David Alvarez, Corey Stoll, Mike Faist, Brian d'Arcy James.Directed by Steven Spielberg ("Lincoln," "War Horse," "Munich," "Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List," "Jurassic Park," "Indiana Jones" films, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial")."West Side Story" is in theaters on Friday, December 10th, 2021.