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‘West Side Story’ Review: Steven Spielberg’s First Musical Is a Revelatory Riff on a Beloved Classic

The filmmaker honors a sacred piece of musical theater by flexing all over it with some of the most exhilarating setpieces he’s ever shot, but there are a handful of puzzling missteps.

"West Side Story"

“West Side Story”

Disney

Steven Spielberg had never directed a musical prior to his bold and occasionally breathtaking new adaptation of “West Side Story,” and yet it sometimes feels as if they’re the only kind of movie that he’s ever made. Spielberg’s images so fluidly dance with the sound around them that it can be impossible to separate the two. Indiana Jones might not burst into song during “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but his adventures are staged with a dance-like expressionism that evokes “An American in Paris” just as much as it does an archaeologist in Peru. “The Adventures of Tintin” might not be the kind of animated spectacle that people tend to associate with Disney princesses, but the Mouse House has never drawn anything that moves with such kinetic rhythm and meter. His take on “The Color Purple” was so theatrical that it inspired a great Broadway show, his “Catch Me if You Can” so melodic that it inspired a bad one, and his “Jurassic Park” so genetically linked to its John Williams score that it provided theme music for an entire geologic period.

In other words, the guy has been rehearsing for this moment since “West Side Story” was first adapted for the big screen in 1961. Now that he’s taken his own swing at the Sondheim and Bernstein classic more than half a century later, it’s poignant and perversely thrilling to find that his full-throated riff on one of the greatest musicals ever staged often feels like just another Steven Spielberg movie; a late period Steven Spielberg movie that’s been desaturated within an inch of its life and sealed inside a bubble of digital plastic, but a Steven Spielberg movie all the same.

That might have been a problem — or at least more of a backhanded compliment — if the source material were any less magical, but these enduringly strong Shakespearean bones practically begged a modern filmmaker to lend them some new muscles. Spielberg was happy to oblige, honoring a sacred piece of musical theater by flexing all over it with some of the most exhilarating setpieces he’s ever shot. It takes chutzpah to reimagine a ditty like “Cool” as the backdrop for a dance fight on par with anything in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and vision to make a tired song like “I Feel Pretty” seem essential to Maria (in your face, Ivo van Hove!), and Tony Kushner’s revelatory script tees Spielberg up for opportunities like that at every turn.

The same reverently aggressive approach to adaptation that allows for such discrete moments of genius also strengthens the musical as a whole, offering this “West Side Story” a richer sense of context than any previous version of the show has been allowed before, and not only because Spielberg was able to shoot it on the actual streets of New York with a cast of actual Latinx actors who often speak in actual (unsubtitled) Spanish. But for all of the ways in which Spielberg enhances Broadway, and for all of the ways that Broadway empowers Spielberg in return, crucial aspects of this film are caught in a no man’s land between the two, uncomfortably snagged between stage and screen.

And by “crucial aspects,” I mean “the romance between Tony and Maria that gives the whole thing its narrative purpose.” How strange to see a version of “the greatest love story ever told” that lifts your soul out of your body when its characters just go about their daily lives in the first act, but leaves you with little more than a twitch of emotion when they inevitably die in the second.

“West Side Story”

When this “West Side Story” is good, though, it can be staggeringly great. That greatness is on full display from the opening shot, which tweaks the inimitably wordless prologue of the 1961 film just enough to justify doing it all over again. The very first thing we see is something that would have been impossible for the previous version, and not only because it’s part of a computer-assisted aerial shot that zips around the rubble of the Upper West Side neighborhoods that Robert Moses created in order to build Lincoln Center, but rather because the camera leaps over a mock-up of the completed facility as it looked when it opened in 1962. The message is clear: This is the “West Side Story” you know and love, only revitalized by a distance that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins never got to have from it.

That aura — young and alive without leaning on nostalgia or feeling like a Gap ad — only intensifies as the Jets and Sharks begin to square off in the ruins of the home that had been promised to them both. The dance combat that Justin Peck choreographed in tribute to Robbins is no less graceful or expressive than it was before, but the fighting is no longer purely symbolic. Kids get hurt. Heads are busted. A nail gets pounded through someone’s ear. When the Jets stride over the rocks in formation, they’re as scary as a phalanx of finger-snapping white teenagers could ever be. Much of the credit for that belongs to the incredible Mike Faist, who plays gang leader Riff like a raspy Proud Boy John Mulaney; if Riff sees the post-war influx of Puerto Ricans as some kind of existential threat, that’s only because his parents didn’t leave him anything else to remember them by.

"West Side Story"

“West Side Story”

20th Century Studios

The Sharks are more broadly sympathetic, as their hopes for building a better life were disrupted by racism, nativism, the poverty that both of those things engender, and that which Moses’ city planning helped to consecrate. In order to more squarely confront those challenges, Shark leader Bernardo has been reimagined with a newfound pugilistic streak (he’s played with sweetly brooding intensity by David Alvarez, whose performance is another testament to Spielberg’s “my name is the only one that has to be on the poster” swagger and how it frees him to cast the best people you’ve never heard of for even the biggest parts). Long before two star-crossed lovers spot each other across a crowded gym, the needlessness of their impending tragedy is already writ large. They can rumble all they want, but the wrecking balls are coming no matter what.

That should be enough to add an extra charge to the 24-hour love story that develops between Tony and Maria, and it is at first. So tainted by his personal behavior that “The Goldfinch” no longer qualifies as his worst offense, Ansel Elgort plays Tony as a mix of old Hollywood stoicism and new Hollywood scandal. His lovely singing voice distracts from the woodenness of his dialogue performance, and he cuts a handsome matinee idol figure even if the unreal softness of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography — at once both denatured and dreamlike — often makes it look as if Elgort is trying to disguise himself as a young CGI Jeff Bridges. Rachel Zegler’s Maria… perfect, no notes, Natalie Wood was an icon but there’s simply no competing with a New York City theater kid. If Spielberg’s restless staging of “Tonight” distracts from Zegler’s talent, the sequence in which Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight at the neighborhood social is so propulsively enchanted that you almost feel like they might be able to stop time, leave town, and cut straight to “Somewhere.”

"West Side Story"

“West Side Story”

Disney

Almost all of the musical numbers are similarly intoxicating, with superfluous bits like “Gee, Officer Krupke” redeemed by character-driven staging, and the already-showstopping “America” erupting into a neighborhood-wide battle between perseverance and retreat. Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (an incendiary Ariana DeBose) is the most vocal cheerleader in defense of the Puerto Rican community digging in their heels, and few of this movie’s dramatic scenes are more powerful than the climactic encounter in which Anita tries to reconcile her hope with her heartache.

Rita Moreno should be proud of how DeBose inhabits the role she once made iconic, and I’m sure that she is — the 89-year-old legend isn’t only an executive producer on this film, she’s an on-screen link to its past. Kushner has killed off the kindly gringo pharmacist Doc and replaced him with his widow Valentina, who Moreno commands into a living emblem of the harmony that once seemed possible. But every minute spent on this new character relegates Tony and Maria further into the background, which is especially damaging in a film that strives for expressionistic realism even while asking us to believe that two teenagers might see each other, get married as part of a boring date at the Cloisters, and then have sex after one of them murders the other’s brother — all in the span of a single day.

WEST SIDE STORY, Mike Faist, 2021. ph: Niko Tavernise /© 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection

“West Side Story”

©20th Century Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

These characters have always been overshadowed by the show’s more colorful supporting roles, as the leads of a musical often are, but even in the abridged context of a Romeo & Juliet story, there simply isn’t enough desire between them to sell their most drastic choices. It’s tempting to blame Elgort for that, but Kushner bears much of the responsibility; in his eagerness to articulate the symbolic weight of Tony and Maria’s forbidden love, his script loses their impulsive passion. Understandable as that tradeoff may be, the decision to let Valentina belt “Somewhere” as an elegiac riff on “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” scores a thimble of poignancy in exchange for a mountain of pain. It dulls the impact of the ending in ways that not even Kushner’s most brilliant gambits (e.g. moving “I Feel Pretty” until the last possible moment) can fully redeem, and allows Spielberg to teeter away from musicality and into melodrama at the precise moment that he needs to strike a balance between the two.

But if “West Side Story” begins to fall apart after the big rumble, the flubbed ending only makes this musical feel even more of a piece with Spielberg’s other films. The familiar activeness of his camera is as restored by “West Side Story” as “West Side Story” is by it in return, Spielberg and Kushner adding dimension upon dimension to an American classic until its tragedy steeps into silence. It’s a wonderful musical, and an unabashed Steven Spielberg movie. And the moments in which it most comfortably allows itself to be both of those things at once leave you convinced that some harmonies are worth waiting for, even if it seems like they’ve been always been around the corner and whistling down the river.

Grade: B+

20th Century Studies will release “West Side Story” in theaters on Friday, December 10.

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