West Side Story is spectacular. Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited musical is one of his finest films, and with a career like Spielberg’s, that is saying something. It all feels so effortless – the dazzling dance sequences, the passionate vocal performances from the actors, the marvelous camerawork from Janusz Kaminski, and through it all you can feel Spielberg’s presence, hovering over the film like some kind of cinema god, controlling this world from the heavens.
You can hear the pundits and critics over the years asking if Spielberg still has the magic, and not only does he still have it, Spielberg throws down the gauntlet. No filmmaker alive can do what Spielberg does, not at this level. There are many imitators, but there is only one Steven Spielberg.
Look, we all knew that Spielberg had a great musical in him. He has talked about making one since the 1970s. The opening number of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom gave us a taste of what that would be like with the Busby Berkeley “Anything Goes” number, but you can tell, throughout the years, just by his cinematic language alone that a Spielberg musical was going to happen. So much of Spielberg’s work is accentuated by music, especially his work with John Williams.
So why would Spielberg make a musical now? Not only a musical, but also what some would consider THE musical? The original West Side Story is an Oscar-winning, undisputed classic. Robert Wise’s film is still deeply loved and appreciated 60 years later; the songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim still pop, and Jerome Robbins’ choreography still dazzles.
The question that seems to dominate is, “How can Spielberg improve on perfection?” And the answer is, he’s not trying to improve on anything. Most remakes aren’t, despite what popular opinion may say. This is a timeless story, as anyone who has ever read Shakespeare can attest, but like Romeo and Juliet, this story can be reevaluated and recontextualized for modern audiences. That was the point of the original musical, in fact. Spielberg is just following tradition, from a long line of authors, playwrights, and filmmakers.
There is plenty of material to recontectualize, too. The original play and film were an attempt to shape Shakespeare’s classic play for younger audiences, and address the modern themes of the day. However, a lot has happened in 60 years. We live in tumultuous times, and while Spielberg’s film is still set in the 1950s, he and screenwriter Tony Kushner have filled West Side Story with themes and ideas that still have meaning today. Hotbed issues like race, class, immigration, law enforcement – Spielberg and Kushner weave all of it through the narrative and make West Side Story just as compelling for today’s audiences as it was for audiences in 1961.
But how are the performances? To varying degrees of success, each of the actors put their passion and talents to good use, but some performances are better than others. At the top of the pack: Rachel Zegler as Maria, who should be in Best Actress discussions from now until Oscar time. She is our emotional center, and carries the movie in so many ways. Her voice is melodic and strong, and she takes full command of every dance performance she is given.
No less a contender for Best Supporting Actress is Ariana DeBose as Anita, who takes the already iconic performance of Rita Moreno in the original film and adds her unique spark and charm to the character. Rita Moreno herself is also tremendous as Valentina (analogous to the character of Doc in the original film), and Spielberg makes a wonderful choice to give Moreno the classic “Somewhere” to sing, which she give a powerhouse performance. It’s truly magnificent to see Moreno here, and it’s a powerful, emotional moment in the film.
Some reviewers may want to attach Ansel Elgort’s recent troubles to his performance here, but that’s not being entirely fair. Elgort is fine; he can dance, and has a lovely singing voice and his take on the character as a lovable lug work. He’s just outshined by nearly everyone else, including sure-to-be-cast-in-everything-from-here-on-out Mike Faist as Riff, and David Alvarez as Bernardo.
Spielberg has always had an eye for good, young actors, and I have the feeling that when we look at this cast in a few years they’ll be in so many other films and shows that West Side Story will look like one of the best assembled casts in movie history.
My favorite thing that Spielberg does is that he changes the context of every song from the original film. Some songs move around in order, placed in different locales, others sung by different characters, and always with attention paid to the context of the piece. The Sharks and the Jets fight over rubble, and told repeatedly that their conflict for turf will not make any difference in the grand scheme of things since they’re all likely to be evicted anyway since New York City is modernizing.
It’s easy to juxtapose that conflict into the present, when so many groups are fighting among themselves while governments, corporations, and politicians fleece all of them and use their fights as an opportunistic distraction while they seize money and power.
Spielberg also makes an interesting choice in not putting subtitles for the spoken Spanish in the film, which causes the audience to pay attention more to visual cues and to the performances. The dialogue isn’t difficult to understand anyway, and people probably know more Spanish than they realize, but the effect gives us great empathy for those characters. Immigrants navigating a life in a foreign country, not knowing the language, but trying to make the best of it – Spielberg flips the script and gives the English-speaking audience a taste of that life for a few moments, and while language is too often used to divide, Spielberg uses it to unite.
We have all been in love, and we have all been afraid, confused, angry, and Spielberg gives us those moments as something to be shared, regardless of language. This has always been a major theme in Spielberg’s films – from a spaceship communicating with humanity through music in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or political machinations and veiled threats in Bridge of Spies as two countries who desperately need to communicate which each other for their own benefit, even if their governments refuse to allow it.
Even with all this subtext, West Side Story still entertains and inspires. Often, you can feel Spielberg challenging himself, pushing his obvious skills and knowledge of film as far as he can. West Side Story may have started as a play, but Spielberg’s version is fiercely, brazenly cinematic. Janusz Kaminski shoots those gloriously choreographed dance numbers as if he’s being chased, and Justin Peck gives Jerome Robbins’ masterful dance work urgency and spectacle.
Audiences can decide for themselves whether or not it overtakes the original film, but speaking for myself, West Side Story is pure cinema magic, and a musical for the ages. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a masterpiece.
WEST SIDE STORY REVIEW SCORE: 10/10
Disney’s 20th Century Studios will release West Side Story in theaters on December 10, 2021.