West Side Story

The new West Side Story opens with a superb crane shot over looking the teardown of apartment buildings in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A sign states that all this work is making way for the construction of Lincoln Center, the opulent, sprawling performing arts complex that still stands today. It’s an explicit commentary on gentrification, stated with the kind of frankness that was missing in the 1961 film. This is what Steven Spielberg promised and delivered. No more kid gloves when dealing with the racism at the center of the story, no soft soap treatment of the political divisions that keep the Sharks and the Jets at each other’s throats. That the movie had its world premiere at Lincoln Center is an ironic detail, but a telling one also. This is top notch filmmaking on a massive scale, but is it necessary? The movie is constantly arguing for its own relevancy.

The Leonard Bernstein music and the Stephen Sondheim lyrics are the same. The Jerome Robbins choreography is not recreated whole cloth, but choreographer Justin Peck does an excellent job translating Robbins’ wistful balletic movements to this updated version. The spirit of the original production is deeply ingrained throughout the film, and to that end, the script is written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, of Angels in America and another Spielberg film, Lincoln. Spielberg’s usual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, is back behind the camera with him again. So the deck is stacked quite high, with legendary talent manning the show, it’s no wonder that West Side Story is so stunning to look at. Spielberg is really throwing the kitchen sink at you, instilling every shot and sequence with cinematic gusto.

The familiar, Romeo and Juliet-themed story of Jets and Sharks is left mostly unchanged here. The elements of gentrification and racism are more foregrounded than they were in the original, and the Puerto Rican Sharks are played by actual latinx performers. Our Tony is played by Ansel Elgort and our Maria is played by Rachel Zegler. Their impulsive love affair sparks fury within the already tense rivalry of the local gangs of the Upper West Side. The Jets are a group of impoverished whites, frightened by the incoming Puerto Rican population flourishing in their neighborhood. They’re led by Tony’s best friend, Riff (a spectacular Mike Faist). The Sharks are a hoard of Puerto Rican toughs, banding together to protect themselves against the hostile whites, namely the Jets. They’re led by Maria’s older brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez).

Both groups are equally distrustful of police authority, preferring to dole out their own brutal form of justice to each other. It’s an important detail that, despite their hatred for one another, they both recognize the other as victims of a larger, corrupt power. A lingering irony throughout the story is how well they could support each other quite well if prejudice didn’t get in the way, but West Side Story isn’t about communion between battling forces. Though the song and dance numbers may convince you otherwise, this is a tragedy. Its scope is robust and even though the timeframe is only a few days, there’s an epic feel to the way time moves. Which is a polite way of saying that this movie is very long, and feels that way.

My feelings for this Spielberg update are not too dissimilar to the first 1961 film. More appreciation than flat admiration. The melodramatic nature of the story feels hysterical at moments, as if it is struggling to shake off its Elizabethan origins and translate it to contemporary times. It’s the lush visuals and sharp tempo that keeps your interest. Kushner and Spielberg tinker with the formula here and there – including a very clever jailhouse rendition of “Gee Officer Krupke” and a stunt-laden, death-defying version of “Cool” – adding juice to an already feisty film. The performances are mostly fantastic, with the main exception being Elgort (whose noted off-screen sexual assault allegations makes the word “problematic” do a lot of heavy lifting), who manages to be the lesser point of every scene he shares.

Zegler, in her breakout role, gives Maria real feeling. It’s the film’s signature part, with several solos and spotlights, and a major emotional moment at the film’s climax. Zegler proves more than adept as a singer, and shows her ability to carry a movie, but West Side Story is an accomplished ensemble, casting several Broadway stars for the film. Faist’s Riff is hard edged but vulnerable, a captivating and complicated baddie, while Ariana DeBose stuns as Anita, Bernardo’s strong-minded and outspoken girlfriend who dreams of American prosperity. The role is a crowd-pleaser that won Rita Moreno an Oscar for the original, and Moreno returns in this film as Valentina, the Puerto Rican widow who owns Doc’s, the drugstore where Tony works (another detail shift that gifts this adaptation some gravitas). Moreno plays Valentina as Tony’s moral center, but she is also the film’s wise voice, dominating her scenes with the power of her screen presence.

There are story elements in West Side Story that will never sit right with me. They’re all impossible to mention without reaching spoiler territory, so I’ll just summarize by saying that logic of certain characters’ decisions seldom hold up even under marginal scrutiny. Part of West Side‘s appeal for the past seven decades has been its fantastical drama. Suspending disbelief is part of the deal, but I’ve never managed to do it. That and the presence of Elgort will keep from loving this film totally, but this is still a triumph for Spielberg. Not since 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence has he seemed so invested in the spectacle of cinema, in showcasing himself as the star director he’s reputed to be. There is not a frame in West Side Story that doesn’t scream of his influence and talent, and yet it always serves Kushner’s script and the story at large. That is his genius, taking his unquestioned ability and reflecting it off the talent of others on a scale like nobody else can achieve.


Directed by Steven Spielberg