I can think of no more of a foolhardy gesture than remaking West Side Story. I don’t care if you’re Steven Spielberg, one of the last living legends of the craft. It’s just taboo, like remaking Citizen Kane, or Ben-Hur (the latter of which was indeed remade, to disastrous effect). The 1957 musical is one of the best ever put on stage, and the 1961 film is the gold standard for adapting a musical to the screen – it just can’t be topped; never has, never will. However, Spielberg is well aware of this truth, and therefore approaches his film with the same commitment Kenneth Branagh brings to his Shakespearean adaptations. And by revering a true classic while simultaneously adding his own original flairs, Spielberg has managed to make the challenging look simple: a good film that never pales to its predecessor, even as it never outshines it.
In 1957 New York, as the neighborhood of San Juan Hill is displaced to make room for the Lincoln Center, two gangs remain locked in a continuous battle for the neighborhood. On one side are the Jets, descendants of the neighborhood’s original Irish inhabitants, and led by bitter leader Riff (Mike Faist). On the other side are the Sharks, first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants trying to defend their neighbors from racist neighbors and police, led by the arrogant boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez). After weeks of escalating tensions, the two gangs set out to set up a rumble: a no-holds-barred brawl for control of the territory. But their plans and hatred are complicated by the budding relationship between Tony (Ansel Elgort), the recently incarcerated former leader of the Jets, and Bernardo’s younger sister María (Rachel Zegler). Their love puts them all on a collision course with destiny, and all the passion and hope and tragedy that goes with it.
What West Side Story does best is maintaining the feral nature of the story’s heart while keeping the operatic nature of the music and the numbers. The original musical and film is so dreamy and so expertly crafted, it is easy to forget that it is a story about the system training its children to become killers, through poverty and manufactured racism. It’s about the brutal nature of nativism, and how in a world so powered by hate, love is rare, beautiful and doomed. These are issues that were relevant in 1957 when the show first premiered, in 1961 when the film was released, in 2008 for the popular revival, and once again now – perhaps more than ever – in 2021. This is a universal story no matter when you tell it, and those themes will drive the story regardless. Spielberg understands that for this film to work, it must be approached like Shakespeare – reinterpreted, but understanding it can never be fully redone. All you can do is add your own fresh twists to the already-timeless material.
It’s why Tony Kushner’s script is so vital – he revamps and elevates the material that comes in between Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics (quite possibly the greatest work ever crafted by an American artist, in any medium). Kushner makes small, but significant changes to the story and dialogue. It’s mostly the same (including some dialogue from the original 1957 show deemed too racy for the original film), but the world around it is far richer. Bernardo now has hopes and dreams of becoming a boxer. Tony’s reason to escape the Jets and start over is his recent stint in jail for almost killing a rival gang member in a previous rumble. The Jets and Sharks are fighting because they are being squeezed in together as racist mayor Robert Moses destroys neighborhoods to build the Lincoln Center.
And perhaps smartest of all, there’s the fleshing out of Chino. Originally just a gang member who was supposed to date María and ultimately brings about the tragic conclusion, Kushner and Spielberg have pulled off a miracle: creating a backstory for the character that not only richens the performance, but actually creates new tragedy in and of itself. Chino is no longer a member of the Sharks, he is the pride of the Puerto Rican community, a kindly nerd going to night school to work his way out, and who idolizes Bernardo, the boy who always protected him growing up. In fact, in one sequence, Spielberg and Kushner make it clear that Chino is no different (and indeed, may be even better) than Tony. It shades his experiences and journey, and makes the conclusion all the more haunting.
Of course, West Side Story isn’t just a grand tragedy. It is, at its core, an operatic musical – the platonic ideal of the genre, one might say. This is where Spielberg’s talents enter the picture: I’m not sure there’s another director out there who understands the size and scope needed for a project like this. It simply doesn’t exist anymore – not even with La La Land. Spielberg understands how to give each musical number the gravitas it deserves; obviously this applies to putting Bernstein’s score first and foremost, but it especially applies to the dancing by Justin Peck, the greatest working choreographer in the business. While Peck’s work here is not exactly the original’s balletic feat of genius, it is still stunning as the actors leap and fly through the streets of New York. In fact, one my have to wonder if Peck deserves co-credit as a director, the same way Jerome Robbins once did.
Yet even without Peck’s choreography, Spielberg still finds ways to make this film his own. The Balcony Scene, utilizing Zegler’s impressive voice and the best work Elgort can muster (more on that in a minute), is as electrifying as ever. In fact, it may even achieve the heretical task of surpassing the staging of the 1961 original. “America,” now set in the light of day through the boroughs of San Juan Hill, is as lively as ever, as is the iconic dance at the gym (the only sequence maintaining elements of Robbins’ original choreography. And I cannot stress the way Spielberg frames the “Tonight” Quintet. That’s a sequence often heralded as one of the greatest of all time in the original film, and yet Spielberg still finds ways to make it his own, crafting a new experience as the singers interweave past each other on the way to their respective fates. These are well-crafted, well-staged musical numbers, and they serve as proof-of-concept towards any doubt held about Spielberg’s decision to remake this classic – not to mention its ability to enliven the material.
Spielberg’s mastery extends far beyond the film’s musicality, however. Every frame of West Side Story is further proof of his genius as a filmmaker. His ability to frame a scene utilizing the rule of thirds is still unparalleled in the craft, and the work of longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is further proof of this. While it is disappointing that Kamiński’s sepia-tone often sucks the color out of the frame, and the camera is often too stagnant during the dance scenes (a film like this requires wide panoramics), it is still striking enough to behold on its own. There’s one shot during “Maria” where Tony is filmed in a giant reflective puddle, just because, and it is so gorgeous you’ll instantly overlook Elgort’s singing abilities. Furthermore, there will never be enough praise for production designer Adam Stockhausen – his work on these sets is easily the best of the year, and perhaps the highlight of the film. In fact, the film’s weakest link is the editing by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar. While their cuts give the film a sense of life and realistic kinetic energy, there are too many, often serving to undercut the incredible dancing on display
Still, West Side Story is not supposed to be a technical accomplishment. It is a feat of acting, of singing, and of dancing. So what of the actors? Well, it should come as no surprise that Elgort is the weakest link. As the film’s only non-singer and weakest dancer, Elgort often stumbles from musical number to musical number in painfully tone-deaf fashion. He sort of makes up for it in the interim (i.e. the actual story), but he often suffers from one damning setback: he never feels like he’s passionately, head-over-heels in love. He possesses zero chemistry and zero charisma, often leaving the film to rest on the shoulders of first-time actress Zegler. Thankfully, Zegler is capable of carrying the film’s romance single-handedly. This is one of the most assured cinematic debuts I’ve ever seen; whereas Elgort has no chemistry or appeal, the 20-year-old Zegler simply exudes it, be it her eyes or her mannerisms or that heavenly voice. She possesses an innocence and charisma and curiosity in each scene, aided by the fact that the camera loves her. Every song, every action, every movement feels lived-in, and the film is often at its best when she’s onscreen. This is a towering, tragic performance, and I can’t wait to see what the starlet does next.
If the camera loves Zegler, it idolizes Ariana DeBose, who owns this film from beginning to end. DeBose arguably has the hardest role in the film – Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning turn at the role is so iconic. And yet DeBose never takes her foot off the gas from the jump, dominating every scene she has – even the challenging “America.” The Broadway veteran demonstrates a poise and talent well beyond her peers, throwing every inch of herself into the performance, and is more than capable of holding her own against Moreno. Speaking of Moreno, she herself shows up in a small role that doesn’t quite offer enough of her talents, but she gets one terrific monologue and a performance of “Somewhere” that will linger with you long after the film’s end. Instead, the film’s other secret weapons are Alvarez and Faist as the dueling Bernardo and Riff. Alvarez has the smolder and energy of a young Marlon Brando, and has quiet control over the film in most of his scenes. But it’s the Tony-nominated Faist who’s the real find here. Mostly used as comic relief, Faist’s Riff is an angry young kid with a death wish, reenacting the racism he’s been taught on his collision course with destiny. He is as charismatic and empathetic as he is vile, and the complicated emotions we feel for the character all have to do with Faist’s determined control over the character.
Most of the other Jets and Sharks sort of blend together, although Iris Menas’ take on Anybodys, now a more blatant (if not outright stated) gender-fluid character, finds some pathos. Menas plays Anybodys as a neighborhood outsider loathed for his differences, and who idolized Tony as the only kid in the neighborhood to look out for him. It’s smart writing, and it’s smart acting on Menas’ part. Corey Stoll is an appropriately racist Lieutenant Schrank, while Brian d’Arcy James adds an interesting twist to the bumbling Officer Krupke by playing him as an exhausted everyman who truly thinks he’s making a difference, even as he adds to the neighborhood tensions. And I cannot overstate how smart Josh Andrés Rivera is as Chino, a sentence I never thought I’d write. Rivera’s Chino nearly steals the show, wholly geeky and adorable and emotional as he tries to please his idol and woo his crush. Honestly, he may have the most interesting arc in the film, and he plays it well.
West Side Story is, if nothing else, a tribute to the universality of a terrific story in capable hands. Spielberg has given the musical its rightful crown as America’s greatest artistic accomplishment, and proven that he is capable of making any story work, regardless of its legacy. West Side Story invites viewers into its heart and its passion, impressing us with its music, dazzling us with its new twists on classic material, and gives us no less than four all-time great musical performances. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins have nothing to fear about the legacy of their own classic. But the fact that Spielberg is able to take this story that we all know, that we’ve all seen before, and still let it play us emotionally like a fiddle is a work of wonder in and of itself. It’s a striking achievement in and of itself, and whether you’re a newcomer to the story or skeptical based on your love of the original, West Side Story will not disappoint you.
West Side Story is now playing in theaters nationwide