‘West Side Story’ reimagined for the modern age

Written by Staff Writer, CNN

“The West Side Story” is a bold new statement of intent on the U.S. screen. Twenty years in the making, its ambitious makeover — as well as its triumphs and its misses — ranks with the very best of Hollywood.

An adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, it introduces the Jet Theatre and the Street, not to mention Zabriskie Point, where rivalry, love and tragedy intersect with spectacular effect.

This re-imagining is unvarnished but gloriously rendered. The subject matter — both with its racial politics and contemporary resonance — remains astonishingly relevant. The opening sequence, in which we watch two Puerto Rican teens tango across a darkly glowing city rooftops, is startling and lyrical.

WILLIE G. TOBIN/HOLLYWOOD REPORTER/STYLEHUB

Co-screenwriter Nicholas Britell said he had a few doubts about taking on the project at first, but could see the beauty in its cinematic ambitions. He and directors Alfonso Cuaron and Justin Hurwitz were determined to make it a true reflection of the real-life Harlem of the 1950s.

“Why do we tell a story?” says Britell. “The original is so beautiful, and it’s such a groundbreaking work, but it’s very white, almost cookie-cutter about its subject matter, which is very black. So to have a vehicle to try to touch a multicultural community is almost an impossible thing to do, and yet I thought it was a great emotional challenge. It’s a very emotional topic in particular, but if you can’t touch emotion it’s not really a story.”

Jon Voight stars as Tony, the conflicted street captain of the Jet, and Antonio Banderas is Bernardo, the other half of the duo. Music director Lin-Manuel Miranda added his talents in the scoring process, as did Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the Roots.

The production values are impeccable and the final film revels in its period detail. Each film and each trailer creates an illusion of timelessness, but from this tiny screenshot of the gothic New York streets, we are given the illusion of time-stopping reality.

Oprah-backed LightWorkers Media formed a partnership with famed Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron to distribute the film across Mexico, which allowed the creation of an immersive and inventive environment.

Justin Hurwitz and Antonio Banderas speak about the making of “West Side Story.”

“The West Side Story” spans 3 hours and 20 minutes, and for the majority of that time the action and dialogue are left largely intact, while both characters and actors had to undergo extensive training.

“We worked in sync with the original script, which is written in black and white, so any historical or spiritual background had to be taken from it,” Hurwitz explained. “For example, Bernardo’s father is a West Indian and he has West Indian influences — I was constantly referencing material from West Indians who’ve written back to the original play.”

Yet in its own way, the film is a modern statement, and another successful alternative to Hollywood black movies, of which there are few. Taken alone, it is riveting to watch. Spanning multiple genres and locations, this is a modern “West Side Story” born from a true conviction to its own potential.

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