My wife, who liked this new West Side Story, nonetheless said that she still didn't really know why they remade it. Did the world need another West Side Story?
On the one hand, I think the question was answered in the affirmative right from the start. It's nice, I said to myself, to watch a popular entertainment from a director who knows what they are doing. You wonder why it took Spielberg so long to make a musical. And that feeling lasts ... he is in command of the medium, even making the usual "opening up" of a stage play in ways that feel natural ("America" is no longer on the rooftop, it courses through the city, dazzling).
And why not do a remake? We go to a theater once a week, and we've seen previews for The Tragedy of Macbeth several times, now. I don't know if that movie will be good (although, having seen Frances McDormand on stage as Lady Macbeth, I'm hopeful). But no one complains that there are multiple productions of Macbeth.
The problem is that while West Side Story is cemented in popular culture, it isn't necessarily a great play, and the earlier movie isn't as good as people think it is. It has the songs we all remember, and the dancing that seemed at the time to be so innovative, and perhaps that's enough. But Maria and Tony are among the more boring characters in the play, and the movie comes to a stop for their scenes. It's not the actors' fault ... newcomer Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort do a fine job. But there's a reason why Rita Moreno and George Chakiris won Oscars in 1962 while Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer weren't even nominated (Wood did get a nomination for Splendor in the Grass). Anita and Bernardo pop off the screen ... the parts pop off the screen. And so, in Spielberg's version, Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez steal every scene they are in.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner do what they can to cover up some of the dated attitudes, and they give a semblance of backstories to the main characters ("Gee, Officer Krupke" feels like a true story here). But they are still stuck with Maria and Tony.
There is some excellent acting in all of this ... Mike Faist's take on Riff is intriguing. Everyone is talking about Rita Moreno, and sure, it's nice to see her, but she is replacing one of the most insufferable characters in the original, and she is always more a plot device than a character.
One thing I realized from the start is that I knew the score by heart. We had the movie soundtrack in our house when I was growing up (I also know the words to Oliver! and Gigi). Back then, soundtrack albums were the way you revisited favorite musicals. There was no streaming or On Demand viewing. West Side Story didn't show up on television until 1972. Like many big movies back then, it had occasional return engagements ... my wife and I saw it on a date at our local theater around 1968. But whereas now, you can watch your favorite movies over and over, in 1961, if you wanted to recapture the West Side Story feeling, you listened to the soundtrack. And that's why I knew the score in 2021.
So, is it worth seeing? If you love West Side Story, of course it is. And it's a better movie than the original. But is it one of the best movies of 2021? Nope.