I remember at some point someone telling me, or perhaps I read it some time, that the problem with Hollywood remaking films is that they always remake the good ones.
I can see their point – whoever they were. If you remake a bad film, there is so much scope to improve things: better casting, better script, superior production values, take a silent film and render it with sound, or a black and white film and give it some colour. Making a good film means competing with something everybody already loves. Is your script really going to be better? Your actors more talented? The viewing experience more rewarding?
Steven Spielberg has directed a new adaptation of the popular musical West Side Story, and has clearly created a piece that responds to and is informed by Robert Wise’s earlier 1961 adaptation. Wise’s film is honestly an absolute classic, a superlative achievement from a director whose career boasted several such classics. Spielberg’s version is better. More than that; it is the most satisfying and beautifully composed feature film I have seen in 2021. It is the director’s best feature in more than 20 years. It is, and please trust me on this, the sort of movie that reminds you why you watch movies.
So much hyperbole, I know, You may also know I am an ardent fan of Spielberg’s work. Here’s the thing, though: since the late 1990s Spielberg’s work has shifted on a visual level. There’s been a growing reliance on CGI, and an increasingly ‘milky’ look to his films courtesy of regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The narratives of his films felt flabbier than they used to be, which I find is not uncommon among directors as they get older (Spielberg is 74). All up his films in recent years felt like the work of a man in love with the process of making cinema, but not so much the results. This reached its nadir with his last feature, Ready Player One (2018), a movie that certainly seemed like it would have been an absolute playground to put together but which was positively rage-inducing through which to sit.
West Side Story is clearly a very personal work for Spielberg. In interviews he has spoken of its significance in his childhood. The film is dedicated to his father. Perhaps it is this personal importance, or perhaps it is the pressure of daring to remake a classic. It is in all likelihood both. Whatever the motivation, the result is an honest-to-god masterpiece. On the first viewing it is clear that I for one will be watching this film many more times in the years to come.
It all feels like a sharp breeze taking away all the dust and detritus of cinema in the 2020s. The photography is crisp and detailed, as if the film was shot back in 1961 in tandem with the original. There is a uncomplicated beauty to the compositions and the camera movement. Leonard Bernstein’s famous music has been masterfully arranged by David Newman, and award-winning writer Tony Kushner has adapted and updated the script. There have been changes to plot and character, and they are without exception smart changes. It feels like classic Hollywood and it feels contemporary. When Martin Scorsese got misunderstood and unfairly maligned last year for attempting to distinguish between Marvel movies and honest-to-god proper films, this is what he was talking about. Marvel Studios have engineered an enviable conveyer line of wonderfully bright and entertaining screen experiences, but they’re disposable and they’re easily enjoyed at home. West Side Story needs to be seen on a big screen and via immersive sound, and most importantly with an actual audience. It isn’t digitally confected. It feels real, and it feels enormous. It begs for a community to share the experience in a theatre.
One palpable difference between the Spielberg and Wise versions is that this new film embraces the cultural diversity, casting a wide variety of latino/latina talent in the numerous Puerto Rican roles. It delivers whole sections of dialogue in Spanish, and it does so without subtitles because that would mean subsuming the cultural effect. A change in gender for a supporting character even allows Spielberg to incorporate original West Side Story alum Rita Moreno in a powerful and deeply effective role. These changes lift the material far and away beyond Wise’s older, less diverse film.
The central cast is exceptional on both sides. As Maria, Rachel Zegler represents the most obvious arrival of a major female talent in American film since Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (2010). Co-lead Ansel Elgort, perhaps the weakest link in a profoundly good cast, remains enormously watchable with an odd Harrison Ford-esque quality. As the fiery Bernardo, David Alvarez sparks with a brooding intensity. It reminded me immediately of a much younger Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper (1992); there is an identical sense of here of someone genuinely dangerous and menacing. Mike Faist is an idiosyncratic yet vital choice for gang leader Riff.
There is always a most valuable player in any film work, and for my money here it is Ariana DeBose as Anita (the part originally played by Moreno). Her presence is commanding. Her range is impressive. When she performs “America” it brings the house down. When she smiles, it fills the theatre. When she cries, it is heartbreaking. It takes a lot to outshine such a wonderful cast, but there she is: for my money the best female performance I’ve seen in 2021.
Honestly the rest simply feels like adding punctuation. The songs are great. The film is peppered with well-chosen moments of humour. The choreography is truly superb. This is Spielberg’s first musical. I always assumed he would be brilliant at it, because he remains so brilliantly talented at action. Watch his greatest big-budget spectacles – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, et al – and you can see his masterful control of screen geography: where are the players, where is the camera, what is the landscape. All he ever needed to do was add a melody.
In many ways this is the most difficult of films to appropriately praise, because while it updates and transforms it does not truly innovate. The techniques and the talent brought to bear on West Side Story are nothing new. Instead they are tried and tested, possibly unfashionable, but undeniably better than pretty much anything else being generated on a Hollywood budget these days. This is cinema as the nostalgists and the rose-tinted will enthuse about, only you get to see it in the theatre now and you get to see it for real.