Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ is an admirable effort 

20th+Century+Studios

20th Century Studios

Dan Buffa, SPECIAL FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

If there was one person who could adapt a 1957 classic like West Side Story, it would be Steven Spielberg.

The legendary Jewish filmmaker’s confidence and adoration for the material makes the late Stephen Sondheim’s words jump off the screen. Against all odds, he makes the material seem fresh and it’s hard to resist the allure that surges through the body during a few of the musical numbers here.

The doomed love story should be cemented in movie lovers’ brains by now. Two street gangs with different ethnic backgrounds, the Jets and Sharks, raging war against each other over tough amid a burgeoning relationship from each of their respective gangs. Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) may have been born into separate families with different colors of skin, but they only have eyes for each other.

Breaking Down The Cast

Bernado (David Alvarez) and Riff (Mike Faist) also have eyes for each other, but they are the raging kind that usually leads to violence. Throw in the lovely Rita Moreno as a shop owner crossing sides with her loyalties, and the stage is set for love, war and some death.

ADVERTISEMENT
Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

But is there real cinema magic in this movie? The answer may be yes, but it’s not a masterpiece. Spielberg’s feel for the material matches Tony Kushner’s vital screenplay update, and the cast (mostly) knocks their roles out of the park. If there are scene stealers here, it’s Alvarez and Ariana DeBose, who plays Bernado’s girlfriend and Maria’s sister. They infuse the lyrics and dialogue with fire and desire, never phoning it in or relying on past performances to carve out their roles. There’s something in Alvarez’s eyes that kept bringing me back.

If there’s a weak link, it’s Elgort. He keeps Spielberg’s “West Side Story” from truly taking off. The miscast actor may be able to sing and dance, but he’s overmatched by the luminous Zegler.

The Love Story

This central love story has to make us feel what they’re risking everything for, and Elgort just comes up short. No matter if it’s a scene with Moreno or Alvarez, he just pales in comparison on the screen. It’s his performance that causes the music in this movie to die every time he has to carry a scene.

Spielberg’s work gives fans of the original something to cheer for (especially Moreno) while finding a way to hook the younger crowd as well. If you love powerful musical numbers, this is your movie. From the show-stopping “America” performance to Zegler’s jaw-dropping attempt at “Tonight,” your lonely lover’s heart will be full.

Elgort performance aside, Spielberg sticks the landing, in the end, focusing on the despair of young love amid war. The timeliness rings truer than most remakes because love and war are two things that exist in unison.

While I prefer the original film, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” makes for an admirable and mostly electric effort.