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'West Side Story' Review: Improving the original in more ways than one

'West Side Story' - Steven Spielberg

It’s rare, though not entirely unusual, that the Academy Awards chooses to praise a modern remake of a significant Hollywood classic. With such creative license often frowned upon in the creative void of mainstream contemporary filmmaking. Though, if anyone can make the idea of a classic remake appealing to the Academy, it’s the influential filmmaker and three-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg, whose West Side Story has enraptured audiences since its release last December. 

Now up for seven Academy Awards including Best Achievement in Production Design and Best Picture, Spielberg’s remake has been crowned as a critical and commercial success, challenging the 1961 original by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise for musical supremacy. 

Well known for reinventing the contemporary American musical back in the mid-20th century, the modern day genre owes a lot to the innovation of the late Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics of the musical’s iconic songs. Though, in removing the romance of nostalgia, musicals have transformed since the ‘60s, with Spielberg’s modern remake of the Robbins and Wise classic achieving the ambitions that the original film so desired to reach. 

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Loud, dynamic and vibrant, Spielberg improves on several aspects of the original film, injecting the lethargic tale with some Hollywood glitz and gusto as it unravels the timeless tale of Tony, María and Shakespearian tragedy. Played with wonderful chemistry by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, the two characters lead the line with tangible romance, fuelled by the intensity of the supporting cast including Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo.

More a modern reimagining than a direct remake, Spielberg does well to set his film aside from the original, updating and adapting many aspects of the imperfect original that were superfluous. This ranges from scraping entire scenes to altering where others take place, making for a far more natural flow to the film that flourishes from one scene to the next with a twist and a twirl. 

In such strides, other aspects also fall short with the director unwilling to sacrifice classic moments of the original. This comes across most clearly in the character of Anybodys, played by Iris Menas, with her role feeling more compulsory rather than necessary as they are sidelined as a strange, jagged character who sometimes makes major decisions in the story. Such creates a strange dynamic in Spielberg’s modern version, with odd relationships and commitments between characters making for some emotionally confused moments that break authenticity. 

Where some experiments fail, others resoundingly succeed, with the relationship between María and Bernardo being fleshed out to establish a far stronger familial relationship between the siblings. Giving far more emotional weight to the final conclusion, many of these changes make for a far more rousing emotional climax throughout which we are devoted to the intricate lives of the lead characters. 

Achieving that which the original film could only dream of, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is, at least in visual spectacle, far better than the 1961 original, and even makes strides to better its story too. Whilst such strides are valiant, they also tie up the film in a confused knot, feeling as if it owes too much to the musical masterpiece, when, if it were only to follow its own rhythm, it would be far more superior.