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'West Side Story' review: Steven Spielberg's dazzling update equals the original classic

This image released by 20th Century Studios shows

This image released by 20th Century Studios shows Ansel Elgort as Tony, left, and Rachel Zegler as Maria in "West Side Story."  Credit: AP/Niko Tavernise

PLOT Amid rival street gangs of 1960s New York, two teenagers fall in love.

CAST Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno

RATED PG-13 (some adult content)

LENGTH 2:36

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Steven Spielberg’s dazzling update earns a place alongside the iconic 1961 original.

Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story" is the movie we didn’t know we needed.

On paper, it seems unnecessary: Why remake the virtually unimprovable musical from 1961? A Romeo-and-Juliet romance set among New York street gangs, "West Side Story" is the perfect retro masterpiece, full of jazzy songs and finger-snapping dance moves that seem charmingly quaint yet still utterly cool. Natalie Wood’s casting as a Puerto Rican always rankled, but her Maria remains the embodiment of blushingly corny romance. Adapted from the 1957 Broadway play, the whole movie feels stuck in time — which is probably how its admirers would like it to stay.

Yet here it is once more, unexpectedly revitalized and reinvigorated for a new generation of moviegoers. The young cast makes good on past mistakes: All Latinx roles go to Latinx actors, while the tomboyish Anybodys is played by a nonbinary performer, iris menas. Tony Kushner freshens up the screenplay; choreographer Justin Peck adds new muscle to Jerome Robbins’ original blueprints. The musical’s foundations, however — the memorable melodies of Leonard Bernstein and the crystalline lyrics of Stephen Sondheim — remain essentially sacrosanct. Tackling his first musical at 74 with the energy of a hungry young kid, Spielberg delivers a vibrant, edgy, full-throttle "West Side Story" that rivals the original.

That’s clear from the opening sequence, as members of the white Jets gang grab cans of paint and turn a Puerto Rican flag mural into a splattered Jackson Pollock. It’s a startling visual with echoes of present-day racism, and our first clue that this story of nativist bigotry and immigrant identity still has something to tell us. Corey Stoll, as NYPD Lt. Schrank, puts his finger on it when he calls the Riffs "the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians."

This is a rougher ride than we got in 1961. Mike Faist, replacing Russ Tamblyn as Riff, makes for a hard-bitten gang leader, and even our romantic lead, Tony (an appealing Ansel Elgort), has a dark new back story that includes violence and a prison stint. On the Puerto Rican side, a sassy Ariana DeBose and a soulful David Alvarez play Anita and her macho boyfriend Bernardo, who is the leader of the Sharks and the brother of Maria (Rachel Zegler, in an impressive film debut).

As in the original, Tony and Maria aren’t exactly well-drawn characters — but that’s where the filmmaking comes in. The gymnasium dance where the two meet is a whirlwind of skirts, trousers and adolescent hormones; the fire-escape serenade of "Tonight" becomes a maze of mesh and metal that keeps the lovers tantalizingly apart. Elsewhere, Spielberg magically reworks classic numbers like "Gee, Officer Krupke," which simmers with new anger, and the enduring "America," in which back-and-forth bickering spills out into hot summertime streets (most of them real ones in New York City). Much credit goes to the vivid cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s longtime collaborator.

Rita Moreno, the original film’s vivacious Anita, returns as a new character, Valentina, who owns Doc’s drugstore. In addition to bringing her signature sly delivery (and serving as an executive producer), Moreno is here to reassure us that nobody wants to demolish the old "West Side Story." But as this dazzling version proves, there’s always room for renewal.

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