WEST SIDE STORY (2021) (Movie Review)

STAR-RATING: 4 out of 4 stars. Steven Spielberg’s vigorous and vital retelling of WEST SIDE STORY is a spectacular, substantial triumph.

**** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking)
Released: December 10, 2021
Runtime: 156 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera, Rita Moreno

Why?

That’s been the big question. “Why remake West Side Story?” 

Steven Spielberg. That’s why.

Even with an answer seemingly so self-evident, the question has been raised for good reason.

A landmark musical that first debuted in 1957, West Side Story has been produced countless times through countless iterations worldwide. It also boasts a 1961 film version that won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Considered definitive, that classic has remained a seminal touchstone for fifty years.

In that sense, West Side Story is the last movie that should be remade, especially by an aging director who only has a few more projects left in him. Hell, he didn’t even modernize, reinvent or deconstruct the source material in some significant way, instead choosing to keep it squarely in the late 1950s.

If anything, the prospect seemed ripe for something stodgy and stale, of a Grandpa auteur making something comfortably antiquated rather than imperative or relevant. Worse yet, it could be reflective of someone just coasting on nostalgia in the December of his career.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In terms of the movie musical, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is one for the ages. 

And it may be the best West Side Story ever produced.

It’s the kind of exhilarating and completely unexpected accomplishment that, in gushing about it, well, where do I even start? And where do I stop?! 

Not only was I moved in deeper ways by all the aspects you’d expect, but even by the brilliance of the filmmaking itself (and the filmmaking choices). I often found myself verklempt with tears by how perfect Spielberg’s fusion of the cinematic and the theatric was and is, fueled by the urgency of live theatre set to the grandeur of the screen — with the most robust, vigorous arrangements ever applied to Bernstein’s monumental score  — including an embrace of performance theatrics by the cast, rather than resorting to some conventional, risk-averse “less is more” approach for the camera.

This is a story of passion, and Spielberg has made a movie of passion — with passion. Even with a piece that so many people know like the back of their hand, Spielberg shows us just how vital and alive cinema can be, and the potential that it can reach.

Embracing its roots, this West Side Story is big and stylized, artful and earnest, not dialed down. Indeed, everything here is bigger, not smaller, but also never stagey.  For two mediums (theatre and film) whose disciplines can clash, Spielberg threads a needle of tonal contradictions because he knows how to make theatrics feel credible onscreen, and make a whole world feel like that within film’s intimate aesthetic language. This is never overblown or artificial, even in a tight frame. It’s as if Spielberg staged this production for Broadway but then made it for the movies.

So many current filmmakers seem driven to modernize the musical, and that’s all well and good (unless we’re talking about Cats, of course), but Spielberg doesn’t subscribe to that trend. On the contrary, he doubles down on making a spectacular, epic throwback to a technicolor Golden Age, capturing the balletic form of this newly aggressive (even violent) rendering with a visceral grace of its own.

From the opening shot, it’s clear that this West Side Story is going to be different, and on a grander, grittier scale that will plum the depths of even more themes and ideas — like placing the fight for this territory against the backdrop of an iconic moment of gentrification. That setting turns this slum into a battlefield and raises the stakes of this turf war significantly.

Then, as the movie reveals itself, those familiar with the canonical source can begin to see how it’s being reimagined, specifically in how new dialogue expands the text in virtually every scene, making the show’s themes weighter and its characters richer. An early example: an extended exchange between Lieutenant Schrank and the Jets, but that just scratches the surface.

This adaptation is clearly envisioned by someone who’s been thinking about making West Side Story for years, even decades, and dreaming of the possibilities. It’s also from a man who has lived a long life and understands the world, and wouldn’t have made as nearly a meaningful version of this story had he jumped the gun a generation ago. 

Spielberg’s interpretations of the text are reverent yet daring (especially for something as sacred to American Theatre), faithfully honoring yet boldly transforming it all into something truly substantial. Case in point: the propulsive momentum towards the Jets / Sharks rumble. Spielberg makes that showdown feel truly climactic rather than (as in the stage version) a break before an intermission, and that speaks to how dynamic his direction is.

Spielberg’s Pulitzer Prize winning playwright collaborator Tony Kushner excavates it all with a consequential force. This is Spielberg’s vision but, with a full-script polish that elevates everything to a whole other level, Kushner gives it its voice.

The characters in this mid-century New York City turf war between White and Latino gangs are no longer just Romeo & Juliet archetypes; they’re flesh and blood people with dimension, vitality, and conflicted interior lives. They are doing things for actual reasons, rather than because the formula simply needs them to. This is true not only for the leads but many in the peripheral ensemble as well (like the shy but significant Chino). 

Maria and Tony, the two star-crossed lovers, are wide-eyed but not naive, passionate from their first meet-cute but honest and sober about the dire implications of their mixed-race romance, and in ways that reflect the racial tensions still dividing us today. Their courtship, while still rushed, is also more self-aware and the actors sell it. Yes, it’s impulsive and impetuous but also potent and palpable, not perfunctory. (And inspires alliteration, apparently.)

As Maria, newcomer Rachel Zegler radiates. My goodness, what a discovery, not only in musical talent (such a pristine instrument) but acting as well, accessing a deep emotional well for Maria, a young woman who’s taken through a gauntlet. Anita DeBose commands the screen as Anita, the show’s most dynamic role, certainly with her singing and dancing prowess but also a wise and, ultimately, an anguished and damaged heft. 

Meanwhile, Broadway vets Mike Faist (the original Connor Murphy from Dear Evan Hansen) and David Alvarez (Tony winner as one of the Billys in Billy Elliott: The Musical) make for formidable leaders of the warring Jets and Sharks, Riff and Bernardo, with the latter fleshed out in a particularly clever way. Rita Moreno, who won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Anita back in 1961, is recast here as Valentina, a reimagining of Tony’s mentor and boss Doc as an Hispanic widow. This choice is also well-considered, more than just a nostalgic stunt.

Then there’s Tony. I have to confess, I had my doubts about Ansel Elgort, an actor of inert screen presence. I’m reminded of the unique exchange of insults from E.T. — “Sine Supremus! Zero Charisma!” — that has often seemed applicable to Elgort’s career. But even here, Spielberg gets it right. Elgort brings an exuberant idealism and surprising vocal range to the male lead, yet his innate disposition is also suited for a Tony that’s more introspective and soul-searching. 

Spielberg also places Tony in a musical number that the character has never been in before, and it makes the escalating tension between he and Riff even more magnified, and heartbreaking. The whole movie is rife with this kind of invention.

Leonard Bernstein’s music. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. A book by Arthur Laurents. Conceptualized, choreographed and directed by Jerome Robbins for the stage (and co-directed by Robert Wise for the screen). Their work is the foundation for everything Spielberg does here, along with his collaborators (respectively): arranger David Newman and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, vocal director Jeanine Tesori, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and choreographer Justin Peck. 

Spielberg and his team haven’t “fixed” anything; they’ve enhanced, sharpened, and amplified what was already there — and already brilliant — in transcendent ways that stay true to the groundbreaking source while reinvigorating it anew after more than a half-century. For anyone wondering if making this meant that Spielberg had finally run out of ideas, it’s actually proof that he hasn’t.

This is everything you want West Side Story to be. It’s everything you want a musical to be. And it’s everything you want a movie to be.

(Ranked #10 in my newly updated rankings of The Spielberg Canon)

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