Steven Spielberg tackles a retelling of West Side Story for the modern era with the help of his long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński. The casting and the little, if any, changes to the original story leave one to ask why remake it at all? But perhaps that’s a question we don’t need to be answered.
Love at first sight strikes when young Tony spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks — two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.
With Spielberg’s attempt on West Side Story we quickly see that the iconic dance and musical elements are back with little change from the original. However, we do see elements around gentrification in 1950’s New York is more directly tied to the feud between the two rival groups in the city. The leading cast is well picked and geared towards bringing in younger audiences with a modern take on the classic. Mike Faist as Riff and David Alvarez as Bernardo provide authentic performances as the leaders of each respective gang. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, West Side Stories star-crossed lovers make their way into the story via Ansel Elgort as Tony and YouTube sensation Rachel Zegler as Maria.
While the story may not have been changed much from the original, Spielberg’s touch with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is clear. Beautiful close-up shots and lighting enhanced otherwise muted scenes. The set pieces were also vibrant and added to the musical numbers as important background characters to the overall story. As a call back to the original, Rita Moreno had an important role in the new story. This role is different than the one she played in 1961 (“Anita”). Both a nod to the original 1961 film, and also to her ever-important contributions to cinema over the years, Moreno provides a moral center to the world. Much like the priest in Romeo and Juliet.
The film ends with all the emotion you have come to expect from West Side Story and other off-shoots of the Romeo and Juliet style stories. The question remains about why remake it if telling the same story. The younger cast certainly brings in a new generation of viewers. Yet even those who grew up on the original or have seen it as part of high school classes who enjoy musicals will of course still enjoy it.
If you are a fan of musicals, West Side Story remains one of the best of the year to go and see in theatres. West Side Story hits theatres Dec 10th.