Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story begins, much like Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’, with a God’s eye view of New York City. You could be forgiven for thinking that the grayish island-esque shape jutting into frame is Manhattan itself, stretching into the Hudson, and that Spielberg was unable to resist the urge to open his film with a carbon copy of the 1961 film’s iconic opening aerial photography. But it’s quickly revealed to be a clever optical illusion; we aren’t above the city at all, but low to the ground, hovering over the demolition zone of the Upper West Side in the wake of the Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Project, the very project that was in process when Wise, Robbins, the Sharks, and the Jets took to the NYC streets more than 60 years ago.
It’s an opening moment that brings instant relief to the doubters and naysayers, a sly handshake between this film and that, and an acknowledgment that we are indeed on hallowed ground here, but that Spielberg and his collaborators are quite fine constructing something new, thank you very much.
Because, yes, there’s no need beating around the bush: 1961’s West Side Story is perhaps the greatest film adaptation of a stage musical to ever hit the screen. It won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has remained a cultural touchstone in the decades to follow. It is, for all intents and purposes, kind of a perfect movie.
It’s the “kind of” that serves as ground zero for the Spielberg incarnation, and one can almost feel his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, gleefully lurking behind the wrecking ball that hangs poised over the opening tableau, eager to knock against this old warhorse and see what stays standing.
What remains is Leonard Bernstein’s galvanizing score, as muscular a piece of composition as the American musical theater has ever heard. Untouched too are the lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim, famously some of his least favorite work (though, not to speak ill of the dead, still sturdy as ever).
That leaves Kushner to train his scalpel on the show’s book, which (while penned by theater legend Arthur Laurents), has never been WSS’s strongest suit. Yes, this is still the story of warring street gangs, the white American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, of their leaders Riff and Bernardo, and of the Romeo and Juliet-based romance between Tony and Maria that springs forth amid the conflict. Kushner just, to borrow a phrase, “cuts the frabba jabba,” dispensing with both the “cracko-jacko” slang of the Jets, and the gooey platitudes of the lovers (“We’re untouchable, we are in the air, we have magic”) that would have even the biggest romantic rolling their eyes.
In their place is a first-class piece of adaptation that treats the musical numbers as tent poles from which to hang a near-complete recontextualization of the piece, with an invigorating emphasis on character. The backdrop of a demolished Upper West Side ups the stakes for Jet leader Riff, giving a chilling palpability to his misplaced rage at “everything I know either getting sold, or wrecked, or taken over by people I don’t like.” And a new backstory for Tony answers the glaring question of why the co-founder of a tough guy street gang would suddenly back out to shelve sodas at a drugstore, as well as providing more fodder for Shark leader Bernardo to be suspicious of his intentions with Maria. She is Bernardo’s younger sibling, after all, and the protective dynamic between brother and sister has never been given such weight, nor has Maria ever been given such ample opportunity to hold Tony accountable for the prejudices of his friends, and the power he wields as a privileged white man capable of bringing positive change.
Of course, the most glaring (and essential) change is in the treatment and casting of West Side’s Puerto Rican characters. Glorious and iconic as the original film will always be, the “brownface” element remains an ugly and inescapable relic of an older Hollywood, with Rita Moreno bringing the only real sense of cultural authenticity to those proceedings. Not the case here, where Spielberg and Kushner seem to have gracefully ceded power to the young Latino American members of the cast, as well as to Moreno herself, who aside from appearing in a supporting role (more on that later), serves as an executive producer.
The result is a film that allows for a celebration of a culture amidst the conflict, fluidly moving between English and Spanish (no subtitles), a spot-on choice that underscores both the effort it takes for immigrants to assimilate, and the barrier that exists for those of us who have never had, or chosen, to make that effort. One of the score’s most famous songs, “America,” has been transplanted from its original night-time rooftop setting right down into the heart of a Puerto Rican block party, under the light of the blazing sun. Sondheim’s lyrics (with a few last-minute rewrites) pack as much bite as ever, but the new context gives the number more potency, transforming it into a defiant rallying cry for any immigrant who’s ever known the dark, inhospitable side of our country and boldly chosen to stake their claim for a life here all the same.
That more macro approach doesn’t always serve the film’s young, and incredibly game, ensemble. At times, Spielberg crowds the frame so much in the dance numbers that he can forget to let his soloists shine. Mike Faist’s Riff is never allowed as electric a moment as when Russ Tamblyn sheds his jacket and lets loose at the Dance at the Gym in the original, and Ariana DeBose, while a whirling dervish in Paul Tazewell’s sumptuous costumes, never gets Spielberg’s undivided focus to explode off the screen like Rita Moreno did when she hitched up her skirts and playfully pouted at George Chakiris in “America.” These two fare much better in the film’s more intimate moments, where Faist transforms Riff into a nervy hyena of a gang leader, equal parts John Mulaney and Joe Pesci, as lean and scrappy as David Alvarez’s Bernardo is brawny and imposing.
Likewise, when the camera follows her off the dance floor, DeBose is allowed to create an Anita that is uniquely hers, foregrounding her own Afro-Latino heritage and giving the firebrand scene-stealer of a character a raw human center that crumbles in a shattering eleventh hour scene, one which allows her to walk away from a traumatizing encounter with her dignity (and cultural pride) in tact. It’s there that she also comes face-to-face with Anita’s cinematic originator, Rita Moreno, who in the new role of Valentina, and at 90 years old, proves (despite some unfortunate 80s music video style editing for her otherwise aching performance of “Somewhere”) that presence doesn’t wither with age.
The cast’s proficiency in the intimate moments does wonders for the film’s central relationship, that of Tony and Maria. The doe-eyed lovebirds have always been a bit of a snooze, both onstage and in the original film, but Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort create electricity from the moment they lock eyes across the dance floor, and together they deliver a Balcony Scene for the ages, one that rightfully replaces the original’s staid romanticism with the “let me at ‘em” horniness it deserves.
Zegler is a stunning find, a movie-star-in-the-making. While she can’t completely stick the landing of the film’s tragic finale, she’s undeniably winning everywhere else, particularly in a morning-after-the-first-date scene where her “trying to look like she got a moment of sleep” routine proves the closest the film comes to Jerome Robbins’ balletic expression of a character’s inner life. And Elgort, with a look like James Dean and Marlon Brando and the voice of an old crooner, brings a dynamism to Tony that I’m not sure has ever existed before.
Elsewhere, the MVP, aside from Kushner, is director of photography Janusz Kaminski, whose cinematography is undeniably some of the best of the year, and arguably his most exciting work since Saving Private Ryan. Famous for his washed-out, desaturated compositions, he shoots West Side Story like a painter discovering color for the first time, all the while careening around Adam Stockhausen’s purgatorial sets as though newly energized by Bernstein’s soul-stirring rhythms. There’s a moment in the reconceptualized number “Cool” where he follows two characters wrestling with a gun and smashes the camera down to the ground at such a perfect musical moment that it makes you wish the rest of the choreography had such a titanic punch.
The dancing, while vibrant and full-bodied, was probably always the element that was going to fall most short, the one most under the looming shadow of the 1961 original. Of course, it doesn’t help that Jerome Robbins created a new choreographic vocabulary, through which the line between dance and quotidian movement became inseparable. Under his control, a pas de bourree could be a death threat, a finger snap, a bone-chilling staking of territory. Here, those finger snaps can’t help but feel like mere imitations. While the original uses its prologue to establish its central conflict through the kineticism of dance, this film’s choreographer, Justin Peck, mostly resorts to a lot of running around and hijinks. There was an open opportunity here to develop a new language of movement, different from the original but similar in its expression of character and feeling, that would have served as dynamic a storytelling tool as Kushner’s adaptation choices. It’s not that the dancing feels generic per se, but there’s an added pressure with West Side Story, one that this new incarnation never feels entirely up to confronting as head-on as the rest of its myriad obstacles. That, and Spielberg’s failure to find a wholly satisfying final moment as inspired as his opener, keeps the film from tipping into a fully transcendent reimagining of the material.
Mostly, though, Spielberg is a hell of a maestro, exhaustive in his attempt to give us a fresh, new take on this undeniable classic. There was never much reason to fear; this is, after all, one of our great American directors tackling one of our great American musicals. And yet even that feels like an undervaluing of his bold, open-hearted embrace of this monumental challenge. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a remake of a film so consistently have to contend with iconic moments from its antecedent, nor one that so consistently makes the case for its own iconic status. There are breathtaking surprises around every corner in Spielberg’s West Side Story, moments that seem to be plucked wholecloth from a golden era Hollywood musical, drowned in Technicolor, and transplanted into our present consciousness – the aforementioned balcony scene, a rumble in an abandoned rock salt facility, Tony opening a rooftop hatch to reveal a blood-orange sky. It all adds up to one of the most impressive filmmaking achievements of the year, and if it doesn’t match all the highs of the original, it creates plenty of new ones too.
20th Century Studios will release West Side Story only in theaters on December 10.