Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in West Side Story.

There are now two classic movie musicals named West Side Story—because Steven Spielberg’s remake is as powerful and enjoyable as the 1961 musical. While the movie often has a vibe similar to the original, it stands on its own as a significant and worthwhile take.

If you’d have asked me what two films should never be remade, I would’ve probably said West Side Story and Spielberg’s Jaws. Now that I’ve seen this magical re-do, I’m left wondering if somebody could actually do a new Jaws justice.

Stepping into the iconic roles of Tony and Maria are Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. Elgort surprises in that none of his past screen work leaves you thinking he could pull off singing “Maria” live on any set. (He does!) Zegler amazes in that this is the very first screen role she has had, and her work should get her a Best Actress Oscar. She’s that good.

In the original, the singing voices of Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood were dubbed. Not here: Both stars flash stellar pipes. They can also dance up a storm. They take the roles and put their own spins on them in a way that does zero damage to the integrity of the original. The performances all exist comfortably in the same universe.

While nobody can ever touch Russ Tamblyn’s take on the Jets leader, Riff, Mike Faist is more than serviceable in the role. In a nice twist, Rita Moreno, an Oscar winner for playing Anita in the original, turns up as store-owner Valentina, widow of the original film’s Doc. It’s quite wonderful how Moreno is utilized in this new take. Ariana DeBose plays the new Anita with supreme power.

The choreography is top-notch; the cinematography is first-rate; and all of the performances ring true. If there are any distinguishing factors, it’s that Spielberg’s take is a little gritter, with more-realistic dialogue.

A double feature of the original and this new spin would be a musical lover’s happy place. The two films are both brilliant, vibrant examples of what a movie musical should be.

Spielberg has been hit and miss since 2005’s Munich. His West Side Story gets to stand alongside his best films and qualifies as one of his greatest achievements—and considering this man’s resume, this is saying a lot.

West Side Story is now playing at theaters across the valley.

One reply on “Musical Magic: Steven Spielberg Has Done the Seemingly Impossible: He’s Made a ‘West Side Story’ That’s as Good as the Original—If Not Better”

  1. West Side Story 1961 was my favorite movie ever. I remember seeing it in New Orleans on a first date with my current husband. I also remember being so overtaken by emotion that I had a severe asthma attack in the middle of the song María, needing to use the noisy nebulizer to avoid passing out, and my ‘date’ now husband hitting my arm lightly and saying “SHHH SHHH SHHH” as the nebulizar clonked on loudly. I’m looking forward to watching the 2021 movie and will definitely watch the 1961 again before doing so. This time no asthma and anyway the new nebulizers are very quiet.

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