Fall in love with ‘West Side Story’

Betsy PickleOpinion

I love movie musicals.

I grew up after the Golden Age of Hollywood and became acquainted with the classics through pre-cable television during time slots dubbed “The Early Show” and “The Late Show” and random fillers on weekends. I was obsessed with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. And musicals.

I can’t remember the first time I saw “West Side Story” (1961), but I know it was love at first sight – and first listen. The Leonard Bernstein music was glorious. The dancing was mesmerizing. The characters were vivid. And the timeless, tragic “Romeo and Juliet” story was riveting to me.

When word began to spread that Steven Spielberg was making a new film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway show, I was in denial – wrong director, wrong movie. But last Thursday I took myself to a movie theater for the first time in more than two years to watch the result.

I fell in love again.

It’s the same, but it’s different. Most of the changes are improvements – more engaging leads, actors singing their own parts, culture-appropriate casting, bigger and bolder sets, rearranged song order and locations. The one aspect that doesn’t live up to the original is the dancing; it’s good, but Justin Peck’s choreography doesn’t feel as electrifying as that of Jerome Robbins.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner remains in the late 1950s setting, but it feels more visceral in its portrayal of the social forces of the day. Two gangs – the Jets, youths of white, European descent, and the Sharks, who’ve come to New York from Puerto Rico, with or without their families – are constantly battling to control their “turf,” a downtrodden patch of Manhattan that is due for gentrification.

The Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), are itching to establish dominance through a rumble. Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), an aspiring boxer, is eager to respond. The police, represented by Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll), want to keep a lid on the violence, of course.

Riff’s best friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort), no longer runs with the Jets; he’s on probation after serving time for a violent incident, and he is seeking a fresh start. He works at the neighborhood pharmacy called Doc’s, operated by Doc’s widow, Valentina (Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her Anita in the original film). But Riff sees Tony as a crucial player in asserting dominance over the Sharks.

Bernardo has his own battles at home. His strong-willed girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose), wants him to stay out of trouble and marry her, and his younger sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), chafes at his strict control over her.

A dance brings the Jets and the Sharks together. For Tony and Maria, it’s love at first sight, even though their respective entourages can’t wait to kill each other.

Honestly, I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “Baby Driver”) and newcomer Zegler. They play their characters with sweetness and humor, but Elgort also deftly digs into Tony’s shame with palpable anguish.

As in 1961, Anita stands out; DeBose is very talented. But if she’s looking for Oscar gold, she’s likely out of luck because the newly created character of Valentina is another great showcase for Moreno, who’s now 90. Like Ned Glass’s Doc in the 1961 film, Valentina is the soul of “WSS.” Moreno and the character are a perfect fit.

Spielberg’s experience with large-scale movies serves him well. He sees things big but isn’t scared to dial it back when necessary. “West Side Story” has a million moving parts and a wide spectrum of characters who must work in synch, and Spielberg nails it.

“West Side Story” didn’t have a strong opening this past weekend, and the pandemic is probably responsible for part of that. But I have a feeling that fans of the 1961 movie are as skeptical as I was, and younger moviegoers are skeptical that this has any relevance for them. Banish those thoughts. Spielberg was the right choice, and “WSS” is more relevant today than ever in this cantankerous world.

This is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen and felt with all your senses. Find an offbeat show time. Wear a mask or two. But don’t miss the opportunity to see “West Side Story” in a theater.

Rated PG-13.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran film critic, reporter and editor who occasionally likes to share her opinions with KnoxTNToday readers.

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