The new “West Side Story” doesn’t entirely answer the most obvious question, which is why essentially remake a 60-year-old classic. Director Steven Spielberg nevertheless justifies the effort as a dazzling showcase for this generation’s talent, in a film whose ties to lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died last month, adds to its emotional resonance.
Adapted by playwright Tony Kushner, the film — described as a “reimagining” of the original — possesses a grittier edge, directly connecting gentrification of New York’s slums in the 1950s to the two gangs battling over their shrinking turf as if their lives depend on it. The casting and subtle touches, like not subtitling the Spanish dialogue, also possess considerably more cultural authenticity than a period where non-Latinx actors would be cast in pivotal roles.
As an added bonus, the filmmakers have not only included Rita Moreno — an Oscar winner for the 1961 movie — as the drug-store owner, but cleverly expanded that role in a way that showcases her. If the intention was to provide a reminder that the 89-year-old Moreno, a winner of every award imaginable, is a national treasure, mission accomplished. Beyond that, the bones of “West Side Story,” itself inspired by Romeo and Juliet, remain very much intact, with the mix of jaunty tunes and lushly romantic ballads courtesy of Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein, in its tragic tale of love at first sight.
Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler play the star-crossed Tony and Maria, whose instant infatuation comes in the midst of racial strife between two gangs: the Sharks, headed by her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Jets, run by Tony’s longtime pal Riff (Mike Faist), who’s mystified by Tony’s desire to leave that brutal life behind.