Movie Review: West Side Story

I had some time over the weekend to catch up on some of the movies I’ve been wanting to see. I’d heard great things about Spielberg’s take on West Side Story, but I was still just a tad suspicious.

Going into it, I really doubted the need for the movie. The 1961 original won 10 Oscars, including Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor and Actress. Why in the world remake something that was done so well? It’s just asking for trouble. But it was Stephen Spielberg, and I had a hard time thinking he’d do something just for some sort of money grab. And it’s been over 50 years since the original came out. Maybe he’d set it in a different time period? Or do something to the movie to make it his own?

Nope. He stuck with the original setting. The original numbers. The original story. Almost all of the original characters. The one real difference? Realism. He made the characters seem much more fleshed out, and so the events of the film had much more of an impact.

I’d always felt the original was a musical first and a movie second. Meaning, I had to give the film a bit more leeway when it came to willing suspension of disbelief. The gangs didn’t really seem that intimidating. The song numbers were just that: song numbers. Asides that paused the action, where we got more information about the characters: their dreams, their fears, etc. But the singing and dancing contrasted with the violence of the movie, in a way that felt artistic to me. I didn’t dislike it; it was just part of a movie musical being a movie musical, and it never occurred to me that it was something that needed to be “fixed.”

Except Spielberg managed to do just that. Right from the beginning, the whole film felt much more real. The gangs were most definitely threatening. Yes, there’s still the singing and dancing that don’t necessarily line up with gang violence, but the movie puts the characters and the acting first, and the music second. This isn’t to say the music is bad by any stretch. It’s fantastic. But where the original felt like a musical first and a film second, the remake feels like it flipped that.

Was it perfect? Not quite. There were a couple of minor issues I had with the movie, and the only significant one was giving Somewhere to Rita Moreno to sing instead of leaving it with Tony and Maria. This isn’t because I thought Moreno did a bad job with it (quite the contrary), but it left Maria reprising a song that wasn’t nearly as powerful to me when she’s holding Tony as he dies.

But that’s really minor, and there’s so much to love about this movie. Take Spielberg’s approach to Spanish. There’s a ton of un-subtitled Spanish throughout the film. Spielberg explained in an interview that he felt subtitling the language would give English too much of an upper hand, and it was important to him that the Puerto Ricans be properly, equally represented. I think he did a much better job with that than the original. (Though honestly, that wouldn’t have been hard.)

In the end, I gave it a 9.5/10, and heartily recommend it.


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