It’s been a long journey for Steven Spielberg to finally direct the musical of his dreams. Any attempt at putting together another cinematic adaptation of West Side Story is a daunting task. The Beard does have the advantage of being a master filmmaker whose skills are matched by the terrific craftsman and performers he surrounds himself with. The added notion of finding new areas to explore and other distinguishing elements compared to the 1961 film (winner of 10 Oscars) also means underlining specific beats differently, let alone finding more appropriate casting choices reflecting the nature of this story. But was Spielberg able to deliver? Well, something’s coming, and it’s a lavish, gorgeously captured new take that’s no doubt enamored with the Golden Age of Hollywood as well.
Nothing about this setup or story has changed. West Side Story still focuses on two teenagers, Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), who instantly fall in love in 1950s New York City. The only problem is the rival street gangs they are affiliated with, the Jets and the Sharks.
Scripted by Tony Kushner, the man responsible for Angels in America, along with two of Spielberg’s best 21st century films, Munich and Lincoln, this time around, brings the movie closer to the original Broadway version of West Side Story while still reimagining certain elements. For example, Rita Moreno (who won her Oscar for starring as Anita in the 1961 film) co-stars as Valentina, replacing Doc, who owns the drug store and shelters Tony. Given the utilization of the character, along with an excuse to continue involving Moreno, the film works well with this additional material and the returning song, “Somewhere.”
Other differences include the staging of dance numbers. “America” utilizes the neighborhood streets effectively, bringing more life to the Puerto Rican population the Sharks represent. In other instances, some songs appear at different points in the story than before. Whether or not these are the best ways to freshen up this story, I commend Kushner and Spielberg for having more on their mind than simply rehashing West Side Story with updated visuals.
Now, do these changes play into proper reasoning for this film to exist? Well, that’s the inevitable question that plagues any remake (or new adaptation of a story that’s already been cinematically produced). Ultimately, I do not have an extreme position on questioning the necessity of these sorts of films, as it’s not a way for me to understand movies any better. 2021’s West Side Story isn’t going to replace a classic, but having the chance to see a brilliant filmmaker handle this material in their own way can be as interesting to me as seeing a completely original production take shape.
Beyond just listing the changes, what I found exciting about an updated take on West Side Story was the chance to have much more Latino involvement. This is clearly reflected in the casting, where the Sharks and other Puerto Rican characters are actually portrayed by Latino actors. There are even multiple sequences of characters speaking Spanish, with the movie letting the audience rely on understanding the emotion of the scene rather than subtitles. Kushner’s script also goes a step further by hitting down on the themes harder. Unless viewers went out of their way to ignore the stakes at play, race relations have always been a pivotal element of West Side Story. This version doesn’t shy away from the attitudes seen by the Jets and the cops.
Having further hindsight available in addressing these past times is easily something Spielberg and his crew could have tackled in any way they wanted to. However, the film is still far more interested in being an ode to the period of Hollywood this musical came out of. It’s an interesting thing to balance, as Spielberg wants his West Side Story to be conscious of the discrimination and ugliness stemming from ignorance while promoting the glow of films that come out of this period. Fortunately, it’s an exciting challenge to take on, as it gives cinematographer Janusz Kaminski a lot to consider.
Now, despite Kaminski’s experience and Oscar wins, I haven’t been the most enamored by the look of Spielberg’s films for over a decade at this point. It’s a huge relief to say Kaminski entirely delivered on the vibrancy and spectacle of a huge musical production. For whatever instances of ostentatiousness there are when it comes to lens flares and excessive backlighting, it was more than made up for with wide shots, crane shots, elaborate panning, and unique angles to make every scene appealing.
These visual choices all help to bring out the world developed for this film, which features terrific production design and costumes. Thanks to Justin Peck’s choreography, the film finds all the ways to use the space afforded to deliver several memorable dance sequences that don’t push too hard up against the original film’s spectacular work. This further speaks to the choice to move certain songs around in the story’s chronology, as “Cool,” for example, has a new context, with an intriguing location and an entirely different sort of edge. Similarly, “Gee, Officer Krupke” can lean even more into the humor of its sequence by actually being set in a police station.
Naturally, bringing West Side Story back to life means having performers who can handle the material, which is another area where the film delivers. This starts with newcomer Rachel Zegler, who brings both talent and a natural freshness to the role of Maria. The same can be said for Ariana DeBose as Anita, perhaps the most layered character. Having to act opposite Moreno in one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, DeBose brings all the vulnerability required, in addition to other standout moments throughout that keep her presence as much in the foreground as the main two lovers.
Given how invested we become in the other characters, it’s not as though Tony was ever the most interesting, but regardless of thoughts on Ansel Elgort, he supplies what’s needed for the role, delivering well on his big musical moments. However, his approach to dialogue-driven scenes tends to read a little drier than most, given the theatricality of what’s going on. At the same time, the further the film leans into its heavier moments, the more effective Elgort can be when pushed.
A more notable Jet is Riff (Mike Faist), Tony’s best friend and the gang leader. With all of the characters having a bit more backstory, having more context regarding the angriest tough of the group is welcome. Given how he postures, Faist lets his smaller size play into his desire to prove himself to those around him while handling the musical numbers wonderfully. David Alvarez is also strong as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, with “The Dance at the Gym” and “The Rumble” doing all that’s needed to maximize the tension shared between him and Riff.
There are other elements to shine praise on. At two and a half hours, West Side Story is a lot of movie, but the editing by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar finds the right rhythm in delivering on the film’s movement both in its story momentum and in the big set pieces. For example, “Tonight (Quintet),” a showstopping number that incorporates the whole cast, is something I had been looking forward to, and it’s a delight to see every element of it cut together as well as it is.
It would be one thing to simply do this story again, placing too much focus on a reverence for a classic film, but Spielberg had more than just his love for the Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins film in mind. There’s a film here that feels designed to speak to a newer generation and one that can acknowledge the respect on display. Newer fans can watch a well-crafted movie that is alive and uncompressing in presenting a story appropriately full of representation. Older fans can see the care that went into designing a film that understands how to take what works and hit different angles that do not betray what came before. Most of all, it’s the sort of effort that feels designed to celebrate cinema. This West Side Story comes from a filmmaker whose work as a blockbuster pioneer continues to be matched by his effective ways of playing on emotion.