When it comes to awards, I prefer seeing prizes go to new, different people and stories. That gives Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story two big negative marks on my slate—a remake whose original already won a best picture Oscar, this time led by a man with two Academy Awards for directing. And yet, when it came time for my film critics group to vote for our top movie, I checked the circle next to West Side Story.
Scope, scale, and drama all show up in abundance, along with enough tweaks to provide a fresh and relevant feel. Looking for metaphors in other fields, West Side Story fits into the housing market, ironic since some of its revisions include destruction of homes. But as anyone planning to buy an older house knows, you look for good bones, a structure open to changes that feel natural.
Combining a plot rooted in William Shakespeare with a complex musical score by Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim plus energetic dance from choreographer Jerome Robbins, West Side Story boasts bones solid as stone. Put visual master and movie loving director Steven Spielberg in charge, and the package propels to lively heights.
Spielberg as master architect easily recognized updates needed from the 1961 version of West Side Story and rights some of its wrongs like the cultural insensitivities and traditions of its era. Appropriately, Spielberg features cast members who sing their own songs plus Puerto Rican characters who speak Spanish. This includes Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar playing Anita in the original movie and returns in a reconfigured role as a shopkeeper who sings one of the strongest songs in the score. Always a great role, Anita gives newcomer Ariana DuBose some of the remake’s most powerful scenes and a shot at her own Oscar attention.
Also highlighting the remake, Tony Kushner’s adaptations forthrightly acknowledges racial issues, blowing away cobwebs coating the original text. But authentic and realistic? Not until we all start singing and dancing our way through life; at heart musicals live in their own universe and those who despise the format will never get into a project where people greet death with a song. But for a musical sucker like me, Steven Spielberg’s take on West Side Story beautifully tells a story already well told.