Written by Anna Harrison
A “West Side Story” remake, even from a director such as Steven Spielberg, seemed an ill-advised undertaking when it was first announced. Why tamper with something that, while certainly problematic, was widely considered an untouchable classic, even with the flaws that had become increasingly obvious over the years? It seemed an odd choice, especially given that Spielberg had never directed a musical before. Yet his “West Side Story” neatly quashes any qualms you might have felt about its existence, justifying itself ten times over as the infectious passion with which it was made snakes its way from the screen into your very bones; with his camera, Spielberg unearths even more layers to the musical, his love bleeding into its every shot even as he interrogates the concepts lying underneath.
Spielberg clearly holds the original in esteem and takes many cues from it, including the iconic opening. Like Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins before him, Spielberg uses a snap-filled ballet to wordlessly establish the racial and socioeconomic dynamics at play as the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks face off, fighting for control of a rapidly disappearing block and snaking their way through the city streets with a lithe grace that is no less dangerous for its elegance. At the Jets’ head is Riff (Mike Faist, a Tony nominee for his role as Connor Murphy in “Dear Evan Hansen”), a gangly, sinewy bunch of exposed nerve endings, baring his teeth in alternating snarls and smiles as he hurtles towards a doom both he and the audience can feel from the start. It’s Riff on whom this adaptation turns, and it’s a breathtakingly terrific Faist who gives him that terrible sense of tragedy that makes it work. But Riff is no one without his Shark counterpart, Bernardo, played with astonishing athleticism by Tony winner (for “Billy Elliot” and at 15, no less) David Alvarez, whose massive bicep veins threaten to leap right off the screen as he dances with knife-like precision.
The Jets are kings of a crumbling castle, the foundations shifting like sand beneath their feet as the world changes with blinding speed around them; they rage and spit at anyone who gets too close but are helpless in the face of the gentrification enveloping their neighborhood, as police officers Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Broadway veteran Brian d’Arcy James) are quick to remind them. The Sharks, on the other hand, are fighting tooth and nail to get the keys to the kingdom, any kingdom: they have nowhere to go but forward against the odds, no matter how perilous the road. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski never miss a chance to linger on the demolished buildings hanging like skeletons over the gangs’ heads, or the ads for forthcoming ritzy apartments which promise a shiny new future that the Jets and the Sharks will never be privy to, and the framing choices lend a heaviness to the proceedings that was often missing from the original. The Jets and Sharks fight with each other so that they can ignore the oncoming storm, distracting themselves by scuffling over a scrap of land that’s going to vanish in a few years anyway; like their leaders, the enterprise is doomed from the start—it’s one futile, final shout into the wind before everything gets snatched away.
Spielberg makes their brawls more grounded than Wise and Robbins did, thanks in part to his own sensibilities but also technological advances—there’s plenty of blood this time around, and the punches land with a heaviness that the 1961 version could never quite find—though he never loses the balletic inspiration: everyone moves in leaps and twirls, their limbs flashing across the screen in bursts of magnetic energy beautifully choreographed by Justin Peck. Even as Spielberg emphasizes the dire straits of the world of “West Side Story,” he never loses sight of the fact that it’s a musical; in fact, he revels in it, striking a deft balance between the bleakness of the world the Sharks and Jets face and the joy that their musical numbers prompt, and Kaminski never lets a cinematic moment go to waste. (“America” in particular is a standout, no longer on a dark rooftop but dancing through the streets, bringing the entire neighborhood together in a moment of breathless, colorful joy.)
As with the original, the film struggles the most with its central love story, which simply cannot hope to match the intensity of the discord on the streets it brings about, though newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, Bernardo’s sister, makes a good go at it. Zegler, 16 at the time of her audition and now 20, was one of 30,000 respondents to an open casting call for “West Side Story”, and it’s easy to see how she won the role; with her doe eyes and angelic voice, she seems as if she’s been plucked from the Golden Age of movie musicals. Ansel Elgort, whose Tony is supposed to be a convict but looks more like an aged-out boy band member, simply can’t keep up against Zegler, and certainly not against Faist and the rest. Luckily, the supporting cast around him is so terrific that the bland look on Elgort’s face is hardly even noticeable: there’s Alvarez and Faist, plus Ariana DeBose in a star-making turn as Anita, the striking role initially played by Rita Moreno, who appears here as a new character named Valentina.
While Spielberg clearly has a deep-seated love and reverence for the source material, he knows it is not above changes (there’s no brownface this time around, for one)—writer Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) has added in a heaping of un-subtitled Spanish dialogue, and characters and musical numbers get shuffled around to such great effect you wondered why they weren’t placed there in the first place. Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) gets a poignant arc, elevated from being a glorified extra to a tragic character in his own right, and Rivera sneaks up to nearly steal the show. “Gee, Officer Krupke” moves from a nondescript street to a police precinct, proving to be just as—if not more—riotous as the original; “Be Cool” becomes a frenetic faceoff between Riff and Tony (Riff, towards the end of this number, has a lonely dance break lasting mere seconds, and Faist packs more emotion into this wordless burst of energy than Elgort does the entire movie—it’s one last aching, furious “fuck you” as the threads holding these friends together finally snap); and, in perhaps the biggest change, Valentina sings “Somewhere,” a song usually given to Tony and Maria which here becomes a lament of the cycles of violence and racism the older generation has seen, its lyrics hopeful but its context far less so.
It’s from smart changes like these, changes that deeply understand the meaning of the musical, the motivations of its characters, and its influence on pop culture, that Spielberg does the impossible: he takes one of the most revered films of all time and makes it even better. It’s a tale as old as time beautifully ushered into the modern age, done with the sort of finesse and love that can only come from like Spielberg, someone in complete command of his craft with a game cast and crew at his disposal. Life can be bright in America indeed—if not always for the characters, then at least for us lucky viewers.
West Side Story Trailer
West Side Story is currently playing in wide release.