‘West Side Story’ reimagines the original in Steven Spielberg’s vibrant showcase for its stars

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

The new “West Side Story” doesn’t fully answer the most obvious question, which is why essentially remake a 60-year-old classic. Director Steven Spielberg nevertheless justifies the effort as a dazzling showcase of the talent of this generation, in a film whose links with lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who passed away last month, adds to its emotional resonance.

Adapted by playwright Tony Kushner, the film – described as a “reimagining” of the original – has a more gritty side, directly connecting the gentrification of New York’s slums in the 1950s to the two gangs fighting for their territory. which shrinks as if their life depended on it. . Casting and subtle touches, like not captioning the Spanish dialogue, also possess considerably greater cultural authenticity than a period when non-Latin actors played pivotal roles.

As a bonus, the filmmakers not only included Rita moreno – Oscar winner for the 1961 film – as the owner of a drugstore, but cleverly expanded that role in a way that showcases her. If the intention were to recall that Moreno, 89, winner of all imaginable prizes, is a national treasure, mission accomplished.

Beyond that, the bones of “West Side Story”, itself inspired by Romeo and Juliet, remain very intact, with the mix of playful tunes and lush romantic ballads courtesy of Sondheim and the composer. Leonard Bernstein, in his early tragic love story. seen.

Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler play the stars of Tony and Maria, whose instant infatuation comes amid racial conflicts between two gangs: the Sharks, led by his brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Jets, led by Longtime Tony. Buddy Riff (Mike Faist), who is mystified by Tony’s desire to leave this brutal life behind.

While the dance numbers are choreographed in a muscular fashion, Spielberg toned down some of the magic associated with director Robert Wise’s version, an obvious decision when Tony and Maria first met at the dance. At the time, the world stopped around them; here they quietly retreat to a quiet place behind the gymnasium bleachers.

It is not contempt for male actors to say that women outdo them. Zegler (who would follow that debut with another iconic role as White as snow) is positively bright as Maria, and Ariana DeBose skillfully fills Moreno’s shoes as Anita, who has faith in pursuing an American Dream that Bernardo and his rivals have given up on trying to achieve.

Of course, “West Side Story” hardly slept in the decades that followed, with covers on stage and more high school productions than anyone could count. Still, Spielberg and Kushner took a tricky line in creating a film that shows fidelity to the original while also tinkering with it in a way that invites comparisons with variations – some completely logical, others a little more arbitrary. .

The film marks the first time Spielberg tackles a musical in his eclectic and eclectic career, which makes the effort an opportunity at that level. That he did so in a year populated by several others, including “In the heights” and “Tic, Tic… Boom! “ reflects how cycles change and appetite for content has increased.

Ultimately, “West Side Story” passes the “why” test and will likely leave fans debating which version they prefer. Even those of the opinion that there was not a pressing need to redo – redesigned or not – should conclude that there is a place for this one too.

“West Side Story” will premiere in US theaters on December 10. It is classified PG-13.

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