‘West Side Story’ Review: Spielberg Crafts a Stunning Musical Adaptation
By Daniel Rester
Steven Spielberg, one of our greatest living filmmakers, has tackled many genres throughout his career. But he has surprisingly never made a musical… until now. This change comes with West Side Story, adapted from the landmark 1957 stage show by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents that is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The play is beloved by the theatre community while the 1961 film adaptation has endured as a classic as well. It won ten Oscars back in the day, including Best Picture. While it remains a great film overall, the 1961 adaptation has always contained minor flaws and has become dated in ways. While Spielberg’s new adaptation isn’t perfect either, it does do many things better. It’s arguably, dare I say it, a better film too.
The plot of course revolves around the mixed Caucasian Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks and their ongoing gang war in a soon-to-be-gentrified New York City area. Riff (Mike Faist) leads the Jets while boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez) heads the Sharks. Riff is trying to get his old friend Tony (Ansel Elgort), who just spent a year in prison but is trying to get his act together, to re-join the Jets for an upcoming brawl. Tony, however, falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo’s younger sister.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner show respect to the original material and film while also adding some fresh spins. For instance, some of the songs are shifted to different settings (“Cool” is now on a broken bridge, for example) and the white Doc character is replaced by Doc’s Puerto Rican widow Valentina (Rita Moreno, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 adaptation). The Sharks are also all played by Latinx actors and the film’s Spanish-speaking scenes contain no subtitles on purpose in order to help lend authenticity; the original film, meanwhile, had some members of the Sharks who were white people painted brown, so yeah….
None of the changes feel distracting because they make sense with the story flow and added character touches (there is new backstory to some of the key players). The old and new simply blend together seamlessly with Spielberg and Kushner’s storytelling abilities. Thankfully they find ways to make the dialogue and drama come alive so the non-musical sections don’t come across as bland. The rumble in the salt yard scene is especially tense and powerful.
Spielberg’s passion for West Side Story lights up the screen as he blocks, stages, and frames the scenes wonderfully. He is aided immensely by his longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, a magician of cinematography. The original film had some solid wide shots but was a bit stiff when it came to camera movement. Here, Spielberg and Kaminski compliment the actors’ physicality with camera angles and movements that are energetic without being distracting. I particularly love Kaminski’s work with long shadows and lens flares here, giving the scenes a dreamlike quality. There’s one shot in particular during the gym dance scene that left my jaw dropped as the camera glides past numerous kicking legs.
The cast in this West Side Story is mostly terrific. Zegler is warm and dazzling as Maria while Ariana Debose steals scenes as the new Anita. The scene with Anita doing “America” (now located on the city streets) is a showstopper. Alvarez also provides a strong presence as Bernardo and Moreno is very welcome in her return to the material. But it’s Faist who is the MVP for me. He looks and sounds like he stepped right out of the 1950s and he makes Riff a flawed but fascinating character throughout (and yes, he does some good finger snapping with the Jets).
The smaller supporting players in the Jets also get a memorable scene with the “Gee, Officer Krupke” song. The song has often been an amusing but forgettable one in other adaptations. In Spielberg’s edition, it plays out in hilarious and creative ways in a police station waiting room. It’s one of the standout set pieces and Spielberg isn’t even relying on any of his main players for it.
The only weak link in the cast is Elgort, who comes off as a bit bored as Tony. He isn’t bad, but his co-stars outshine him. The romance between Maria and Tony still comes across as underdeveloped in Spielberg’s version. Many of the supporting Shark actors get little to do with their characters as well.
Minor issues aside, West Side Story is a vibrant and excellent adaptation by Spielberg and company. It pays tribute to the play and original film while also adding some fresh angles of its own. I’m glad Spielberg finally got around to tackling the musical genre and West Side Story makes me hope it isn’t the only time he does it.
My Grade: 9/10 (letter grade equivalent: A)
Running Time: 2h 36min