I was very wary of this Steven Spielberg remake because “West Side Story” is one of my all-time favorite musicals. I’ve had the opportunity to see four separate stage versions as well as two orchestral presentations, and my count for the 1961 movie must be in the dozens. It seemed like heresy to try to outdo a classic. But just before watching Spielberg’s version, I decided to view it as just another interpretation. I’m glad I did, because when it was over, I had fully come around.
Notice I didn’t call it an update or a reboot. It’s not like the lead characters are now named Tony Dogg and Lil Maria. There’s no origin story of the Jets and the Sharks. Spielberg wisely keeps the action in the 1950s timeframe the story was originally set in, but he uses modern moviemaking techniques to enhance his storytelling. What were shots looking down from a helicopter flying over the skyscrapers of Manhattan in the opening of the 1961 movie are now drone shots introducing us up close to wrecking balls tearing down Upper West Side slums to make way for Lincoln Center.
The production and art design are beautiful, reminiscent in some ways, but broader and grittier. That allows Spielberg to open up the action and move much of it into the neighborhood, with an even more exuberant iteration of “America” as just one example.
The cinematography by Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski (who won Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”) keeps the streets and buildings dirty gray and gritty brown, allowing the hues and vivid palettes of the costumes to pop off the screen. The adapted screenplay by Tony Kushner uses much of the original book by Arthur Laurents, but gives the characters some (but not too much) backstory. Similarly, Justin Peck builds upon Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, and the result is something to behold.
Fortunately, Spielberg keeps intact Leonard Bernstein’s score, which remains the best ever written for stage or screen. If you doubt me, go listen to the medley called “Dance At The Gym” for a refresher on what brilliant originality sounds like. The same goes for the lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim, who died just two weeks before the movie hits theaters.
The breakout star of “West Side Story” is Rachel Zegler, one of 50 performers making their big screen debuts. Eighteen years old when the movie was shot in 2019, she won the role of Maria out of 30,000 actresses who auditioned. Zegler is terrific, with a face the camera loves, and Spielberg uses every opportunity to frame and shoot her in just the right light. Opposite her as Tony is Ansel Elgort, who at 25 still has babyface features, so the 7-year age difference seems moot. Sadly, Elgort is not the most emotive actor. Even in his star-making turn as the title character in “Baby Driver,” he wasn’t exactly expressive. His Tony has the same look on his face in the romance scenes as in the fights. In at least one of the latter it was clear there was a stunt dancer doing some of Tony’s steps because Elgort doesn’t have the chops of a Broadway hoofer.
There are two other actresses who will receive some buzz from this movie. Ariana DeBose (“Hamilton” and “Schmigadoon”) injects just the right amount of sass and sarcasm into Anita, stealing nearly every scene she appears in. Meanwhile, Rita Moreno — who will turn 90 tomorrow — returns as the new character Valentina, widow of candy story owner Doc, and gets a spotlight moment in which she sings one of the show’s iconic tunes. Moreno is so good I won’t be surprised if she’s nominated again for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar she won for the 1961 original.
One of the many things Spielberg got right was casting all Latinx actors to play Maria, Anita, Valentina, and the Sharks. Thus, no one has to wear the dark brown makeup that was applied to Moreno, George Chakiris, and their co-stars way back when. It also gives Kushner some leeway to explore themes of poverty, racism, and xenophobia, but always as subtext to the love story. That allows Mike Faist to play Riff as a more menacing gang member than Russ Tamblyn ever did. It also gives this version of “West Side Story” a modern-day connection, particularly in the way he and his fellow Jets speak about holding their turf against immigrants. I could easily see their offspring glued to Fox News Channel and joining the insurrection at the Capitol last January 6th.
The cast is too large to mention everyone, but among its highlights are David Alvarez as Bernardo, Brian D’Arcy James as Officer Krupke, and Corey Stoll as Lt. Schrank.
I give Spielberg’s “West Side Story” a 9.5 out of 10, which will put it near the top of my Best Movies Of 2021 list (coming in 2 weeks). It was supposed to be out at Christmas last year, but COVID changed those plans. Now its release coincides nicely with the 60th anniversary of the original movie. Opens today in theaters.