Let’s be honest, there aren’t many filmmakers out there who can suddenly decide to make a musical and it turn out to be something truly extraordinary. Yet that’s exactly what Steven Spielberg has done with “West Side Story”. Think about it, he’s the man behind the camera for such movies as “Jaws”, “E.T.”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Saving Private Ryan”. And now he’s given us the best movie musical of 2021 and one of the very best since the genre’s recent resurgence.
Story has it that Spielberg has wanted to adapt Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 Broadway musical for years. It took a while, but now late in his incredible career he’s given the chance. There are so many ways this could’ve went bad. But Spielberg isn’t simply remaking the well-known Natalie Wood led 1961 adaptation. He and screenwriter Tony Kushner offer a surprisingly fresh take on the story while still capturing that classic movie musical style.
The story is set in 1950s New York City and it’s a time of obvious change. There’s a growing Puerto Rican community in the city’s West Side. Meanwhile poor families are losing their homes to powerful land developers who were buying up blocks and tearing down old apartment buildings with plans to replace them with fancier lofts for higher paying renters. That helps set the powder keg dynamic that simmers all throughout “West Side Story”.
The musical is essentially part romance and part street gang drama. A turf war has broken out in the West Side between the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are a pack of local kids from poor broken families who’ve been raised on the neighborhood streets. The Sharks are a Puerto Rican gang carving out and protecting a few blocks of turf for their community. Both gangs are pressed under society’s thumb and both are about to be squeezed out by a common threat. But their unbridled animus towards each other blinds them to the reality of their shared situation.
Spielberg does a good job developing what divides the Jets and the Sharks. Both groups of angst-filled young men have been shaped by an assortment of factors – cultural, socioeconomic, domestic, and even racial. “Go back where you came from” yells Riff (Mike Faist), the street-tough yet pained leader of the Jets. “Stick with your own kind” warns Bernardo (David Alvarez), the straight-shooting and protective leader of the Sharks.
But what really brings things to a head is the romance that springs up between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler is her stunning feature film debut). Tony is best friends with Riff and is a co-founder of the Jets. But he’s fresh off a year in prison and determined to stay clean. Maria is sweet, hard-working and the sister of the overly protective Bernardo. So when their eyes lock at a school-sponsored dance and they immediately fall in love, you have all the ingredients for a combustible situation.
Already hungry to fight, the two gangs use the budding romance to set up a ‘rumble’ – an armed showdown 1950s style. The cops, led by the shady Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll), get wind of the rumble and search from Lincoln Square to San Juan Hill to find it and stop it before the violence erupts. Meanwhile Tony and Maria are caught in the middle; torn between their love for each other and their loyalty to their friends and family.
It may be hard to imagine a story like this in the form of a musical, but Spielberg tells it through a near seamless mix of song, dance, and drama. With its soaring music and energetic dance numbers, “West Side Story” plays like a smile-inducing ode to the classic movie musical. By that I mean it gives a hearty embrace to both music AND dance. The choreography is terrific as is the overall look of the film thanks to the eye-popping production design from Oscar-winner and Spielberg favorite Janusz Kamiński’s lively and immersive cinematography.
As for the performances, Spielberg’s casting is mostly spot-on. Rachel Zegler is a star born, with a deep emotional resonance and a powerful voice that I never expected. Stoll is great in a small role as is Rita Moreno who gets some great scenes playing the owner of a neighborhood drug store who tries to guide Tony down the right path. I also loved Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s spirited girlfriend Anita. But for me, the scene-stealer is the charismatic Faist. He’s a perfect fit for his role, and both his acting and dancing transported me back in time, both within the story and as a fan of 50s era big screen musicals. It’s some of my favorite supporting work of the year.
I went into “West Side Story” not knowing what to expect. But Spielberg’s latest swept me away and I left the theater on an emotional high. Some of his points are a little too on the nose and there’s a small underdeveloped side story that never feels true. But those are small things in a movie that put all my reservations to rest. Some have questioned the need for another “West Side Story”. I don’t know whether we “needed” it. But I’m thrilled that Steven Spielberg gave us one. What a rush. “West Side Story” is in theaters now.