West Side Story is very well made and executed with some star-making performances. However, aside from that, it doesn't do much of anything to elevate the source material or the genre beyond the established norms.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Summary: An adaptation of the 1957 musical West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.
There are plenty of reasons to do remakes. Sometimes, a studio wants to cash in on established IP, and they know a familiar title will bring in previous fans. Maybe they want to redo a classic with a new perspective. Perhaps they want to change the medium in which it is presented or revise the story in some significant way. Sometimes, remakes are just made because someone with the power to make it happen wants to do it. That seems to be the case for this new version of West Side Story, which has all of the right pieces in place but doesn't transform the source material or do anything to set it apart from the previous version.
It's hard to judge something like West Side Story because it contains several known quantities, and it's difficult to say whether or not they are points in this movie's favor. The lyrics in the songs are fantastic, but that's because Stephen Sondheim was a master at his craft, and his lyrics have always been great. The music is lovely and keeps you engaged, but Leonard Bernstein's score has likewise always been fantastic. Spielberg is one of the best directors of his generation and has to actively shoot himself in the foot to make a bad movie, so of course, West Side Story is exceptionally well shot and looks very good. Granted, Spielberg does do an excellent job with the dance shots in particular, which can be very difficult to frame.
Other points in this movie's favor are easier to judge because they make this adaptation unique. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is an example of this. Kaminski has worked on some of Spielberg's best-known films, and he really amps up the colors in this movie. This gives West Side Story an even more surreal feeling because everything is just so bright and colorful. Musicals are already incredibly surreal; you need to pretend that people singing their emotions and randomly breaking out into dance is normal. The way Spielberg frames his shots looks exactly like they would on stage at times. The first time we see Maria, it looks like a scene in a play. The dresses and everything else is so lovely to look at, and the frames really pop.
The cast, aside from Ansel Elgort, are all really good. Rachel Zegler, as Maria, is on another level. She has the kind of vocal range that other sopranos dream of having. Her voice is just astounding, and she has a good screen presence. Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez bring some real heart to Anita and Bernado, with DeBose elevating the role of Anita into something special that we don't often see in productions of West Side Story. Finally, Mike Faist is also very good as Riff. He really captures that energy of the snot-nosed punk you want to smack upside the head but don't because you know he needs help. Elgort is the weakest link by far, but it seems that this show can't make it to the big screen with a strong Tony and Maria at the same time. It was also nice to see Rita Moreno play Valentina, a new version of the character of Doc, who owns the store where Tony works. They really make her the heart of the movie, and that is a weight that Moreno can carry easily.
So all of these pieces are on the board; you have a [98%] well-cast, well-performed, well-executed remake of West Side Story sitting there in front of you, and if that is all you want from this movie, then it's just fine. However, Spielberg isn't a legend for no reason, and he has said that he's wanted to make a musical for years. Spielberg is the kind of director that helps redefine genres with his movies. If there was anyone who could take an established, universally-known musical that can be described as "Romeo & Juliet with snapping" and really elevate it, it's him. But Spielberg didn't do that here. He turned in a well-made, gorgeous musical with some excellent performances, but didn't elevate the source material or the genre of the musical in any way. It doesn't add anything to the musical genre that we haven't seen before, which is a shame because Spielberg could have done that and didn't. Perhaps there was a reverence for the source material as something immutable. But presenting a very well-made remake isn't enough to elevate it from good to great.
Finally, there is the matter of the sins of the previous movie. As noted, there are lots of reasons to remake movies, and one reason to remake West Side Story is the brownface that is hugely apparent in the 1961 adaptation. While it is a product of its time, that doesn't excuse it because blackface/brownface/yellowface was never okay. Is addressing that part of West Side Story and making it more authentically Puerto Rican an excellent reason to make a movie? As a white woman, I can't make the call on that, but that is a completely valid reason to remake a movie. I'd implore people to listen to the thoughts of Latino and Latina writers on West Side Story and find out how they feel about this issue.
West Side Story will likely be the first time an entire generation sees this musical, and they really are in for a treat. This material is timeless for a reason, and the passing of Sondheim recently is just such a blow to the theater community. There will truly never be another one like him. If you've never seen West Side Story on the big screen before then, you are going to love this. However, fans of the original movie might find this one just a little lacking when it comes to things that set it apart from that version. Spielberg could have done virtually anything he wanted here, and it feels like he played it safe for West Side Story. Is it a very good movie? Absolutely. Is it revolutionary? Unfortunately, not.