Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, originally adapted to film in 1961 and now reimagined by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, is about as good as movie musicals get. It’s big, it’s melodramatic, the songs, penned by Steven Sondheim, fill the room with emotion, and Leonard Bernstein’s score swells with lavish orchestration on the soundtrack. And Spielberg, a filmmaker who has always had a consummate sense of space and tension in action scenes, knows how to shoot dance numbers. Behold, the many, many wide shots that put whole bodies into frame, with colorful costumes and appropriately lit sets that allow the audience to—gasp—actually see and enjoy the choreography (here by Justin Peck, jumping off from Jerome Robbins’ iconic original work). Cameras swoop and spin with the dancers, enhancing the dizzying turns and steps—West Side Story is never not excellent to look at.
There is a ton of lens flare—so much that I’m concerned that JJ Abrams, Spielberg’s teacher’s pet, will make his next movie just one giant flare searing our eyeballs for two hours—but even that Spielberg turns to his advantage, rendering the lens pops like glitter, enhancing the magic of the first meeting between angsty white boy Tony (Ansel Elgort, awkward), and ingenuous immigrant Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler, absolutely astounding). The fantasy sequence of Robert Wise’s film is gone, replaced by an under-the-bleachers meet cute that plays with the rather staggering height difference between Elgort and Zegler in a fun and flirty way. Tony and Maria’s introduction is sweet, but maybe a little trifling as it’s hard to believe these two—played by actors with a deficit of chemistry—are immediately and intensely in love. Still, Zegler, with her Bambi eyes and winsome smile, sells Maria’s longing for romance and escape from an unwanted arrange marriage well enough to cover for her lack of spark with Elgort.
Truly, Elgort is the weak link here, and not (only) because of real-life accusations of sexual assault. As Tony, he’s gawky and mopey, and when Valentina (Rita Moreno, the original cinematic Anita now transposed as a gender-swapped Doc) says he’s “full of promise”, you can’t help but wonder, really? Is he? Or is he just tall? And while Elgort is a better singer than most actors appearing in musicals these days, he is shone down by literally everyone else in the cast. Zegler belts to the backseats with a Broadway-ready voice, obliterating him in every duet. Not to mention that everyone else in Story is giving a more interesting performance than Elgort, who plays Tony like any pouting teen YA hero. But everyone else is living in a more complicated world, where gentrification is wiping out the neighborhood turf the Sharks and Jets fight over, rendering their conflict not only doomed but also deeply pointless. The sheer futility of it all is driven home early, when Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) takes the Sharks and Jets to task, displaying racism toward the Puerto Rican Sharks, but also dismissing the Jets as, essentially, white trash.
Dancing through this crushing urban blight is a series of interesting characters, including Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the Jets who, in this telling, seems to have latent homoerotic feelings for Tony which layer their fraught friendship with many things unsaid, which Faist is knocking out of the park on every line and Elgort totally fails to return in even haphazard fashion. The Sharks, meanwhile, are led by the charismatic Bernardo (David Alvarez), and his girl, Anita (Ariana DeBose, revelatory). The women of West Side Story really carry it, from Zegler’s pitch-perfect ingenue turn, to DeBose’s electric performance as a woman whose heart breaks with vicious totality, to Rita Moreno as the canny Valentina, who has an intimate understanding of interracial relationships in 1950s New York and the harsh reality facing Tony and Maria.
This is still West Side Story, where gangs of disaffected youths dance in the streets before doing a racism, and murder comes with jazz hands—Spielberg works with the incongruity, shooting the big mid-movie rumble like a thriller, all shadows and sharp lines—but also where the romance is tender and the many, many iconic songs are performed with flawless fervor by a genuinely thrilling cast. The depth added to the Puerto Rican characters only enhances the big emotions of the original work, giving new life to some of the American songbook’s most well-worn songs. And in the face of their neighborhood’s destruction—half their block has literally been torn down—the Jets and the Sharks squabbling over turf to the point that multiple young people die truly becomes a tragedy worthy of its Shakespearean roots. Fine, I give in. The musicals have worn me down. West Side Story is good. Really good.
West Side Story is now showing exclusively in theaters.