Shoot it loud and there’s music playing; shoot it soft and it’s almost like praying: Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story pumps the classic for exactly that, classicism, by milking the musical’s dynamics for maximum expressiveness. Its romance? At its most tender. Its dance? At its most invigorating and desperate. Its songs? As if “Maria” or “Tonight” needed another reason to stick in your head, they’re catchier than ever. Even if you don’t know the lyrics, you know the snaps. And you won’t even need that level of familiarity to get swept up. Spielberg’s been working up to a full-throated musical for decades and he comes at this movie like he’s got something to prove: If there was ever any doubt that he’s a cinematic peer to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story sets it firmly aside. It’s a stunning, loving spectacle that confidently scales the fence right to the top of the movie-musical pack.
You might know the story: The Romeo and Juliet affair between white Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Puerto Rican Maria (Rachel Zegler) drowning in the posturing power struggle between the Jets and Sharks—ethnic street gangs respectively led by their best friend and brother. They meet at a dance, but alas, a rumble is coming. And in America, in New York City, there’s always a rumble coming for their lot. Conspicuously placed inside a deteriorating New York, where buildings are demolished for the good of nebulous and unseen Richie Riches and corrupt civil servants, it’s as much a story about the various responses to capital-driven oppression (buying into the mystical promise of bootstrapping hard work, raging against various machines, saying “fuck it” and blaming another race) as it is about love or hate. Everyone’s emotions are running hot—even hotter than you’d expect in a musical—because everyone’s living on the brink. They don’t got a lot and even what they got they don’t actually have. So in this desperate, frustrating, ultimately futile turf war over ruins and rubble, they’re gonna fight, kiss and (most of all) dance it out while they still can.
Justin Peck, choreographer of the New York City Ballet, highlights this simmering physical threat and sexual power (not mutually exclusive among the charged dancers) by making the most of his performers’ long limbs and extravagant costumes. Bright dress ruffles and beefy arms twirl in magical, powerful symmetry. Spielberg, in turn, stages the numbers to fully explore the space (when sparring in the salt warehouse or on the dance floor) or lack thereof (when melting hearts in Tony and Maria’s fire-escape rendezvous). Nearly every shot is foregrounded with impediments, be they chain-link fences keeping the boys trapped in their circumstances, onlookers framing spotlit dancers, or wrought iron grating separating lovers. It’s a city, after all. Cluttered. Messy. Full of people, things—and potential. Attraction. Camaraderie. Respect. Encapsulated in stand-offs and close-up faces. These are shots that already look like classics, not because they mimic the 1961 film (though Spielberg’s clearly a fan and nods its way in a few key moments), but because they look like they were dreamed, planned and pulled off. You can feel the achievement, yet there’s nothing stagey here: The film’s two-and-a-half hours either zip along or linger so closely around the campfire glow of its couple’s radiating affection that you’d happily stay with them all night.
It’s even more impressive because the movie partially hamstrung itself in the casting phase. Someone teach Ansel Elgort how to cry, or at least how to feel something. In a movie of red-hot, rampant, capital-E Emotions, Elgort’s Tony is a large piece of attractive furniture that never even manages to creak the same way twice. The doe-eyed, soft-faced, semi-accented giant offers ample romantic scaffolding for the tiny Rachel Zegler to duck under and lean against, and his earnest voice is winningly wavering, but his muddy performance is an obstacle. Zegler, however…Zegler’s the real deal. Almost cartoonishly beautiful and with a voice like crystal, she’s also twice the actor of her foil. Witty and sharp—naturally in “I Feel Pretty” but even when navigating the kid/adult flux of her teen bedroom—she’s magnetic in movement and line deliveries. She can either dominate the screen or simply allow it to appreciate her. She’s a movie star.
In fact, the rest of the cast is so good as to throw Elgort into an unflattering light as bright as the film’s frequent flares. He’s not bad (except for the crying) but when you’re next to easy confidence like that of Riff (Mike Faist) or Bernardo (David Alvarez) or Anita (Ariana DeBose), you’re not going to measure up. DeBose’s Anita hangs with the gang leaders just as powerfully as Rita Moreno (who takes on the shopkeeper role here) did in her 1961 Oscar-winning turn as the prickly, horny firebrand. And I could watch Faist’s Riff all day. The way the Broadway vet moves his body is so practiced and skillful that it looks effortless—lazy!—even compared to his gang of sleeveless, coiffed street twunks. His slinky grace leaves ample room to inject charisma into his songs, making him the character everyone’ll be talking about on the way out of the theater.
They get even more moments to shine thanks to some of the film’s savvy updates, courtesy of Tony Kushner’s script. A better-motivated and detailed screenplay, Kushner’s writing brings the musical’s intensified world away from caricature, where Spanish is just another (unsubtitled) language and the timeless inadequacies and excuses weaponized by white men scream out with a familiar so-closeness to self-awareness. These choices breach the story’s thematic relevance past the surface while giving the primary-colored world some secondary shades of realism. A shuffled plot (a little closer to the stage than the original film) also takes advantage of the breakout Faist thanks to a recontextualized “Cool” in an exciting new scene. There are stumbles too. Some added details (taking ample time to clarify Iris Menas’ Anybodys as trans; Moreno’s too-hefty role as mother figure/boss/boricua liaison) can come off as heavy-handed if necessary, evolutionary moves, and other minor tweaks (the cops being sanded down into mere bumblers) ring a bit false.
But change was necessary, even in a reverential and excited revival like this. Spielberg needed to make West Side Story his own without overwriting his own old-school musical goal. He completely succeeds. More expansive in both flashy visual scope and character detail, this West Side Story feels both classic and like a modern blockbuster. With Rachel Zegler as Maria, surrounded by other scene-stealers performing some of Broadway’s best, it also feels like a sure-fire hit. If you’ve never been a musical person, here’s your way in. If you’re already a convert, Steven Spielberg will make you love West Side Story all over again.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Rita Moreno
Release Date: December 10, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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