Steven Spielberg is about to turn 75 years old. Since his debut feature in 1971, a full fifty years ago, he has tackled all manner of genre and subject matter, but never a musical. It makes sense then that his trademark skills –an iconic eye for composition and blocking, perfectly deployed single takes, finding the best cast for the story, and impeccable detail at every level– now all feel like he might have been refining specifically to make a musical because his new version of West Side Story makes excellent use of all of them.
The story you are familiar with, a tale of two rival gangs in 1950s New York City inspired by Romeo and Juliet and considered by many to be the movie musical. Tony (Ansel Elgort) meets and falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a dance, while in the meantime, Tony’s old gang of disaffected white kids are instigating a war with the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks.
While there are many things to celebrate in this updated version of the story, the script is first and most important. Tony Kushner and Spielberg have made several changes that make the film far more clearly about race, gentrification, and cycles of violence.
Where the 1961 film had the gangs fighting over territory, this version opens with a long tracking shot over demolished buildings and fenced-off lots full of rubble, leading toward the future site of the Lincoln Center and billboards for new high rise apartments. The prize is still territory, but the territory is literally being demolished around them to make way for developments that include none of them. Similarly, the prologue scene in 1961 had the rival gangs encountering one another throughout the neighbourhood they were fighting over. This one follows the Jets to a mural of the Puerto Rican flag that they immediately vandalize.
The Jets claim that they aren’t racist, that they only don’t like new people, but it’s just as thinly veiled an excuse as it is in real life. When the police come and break up the first fight, it’s also clear exactly which side they are on. Sure, the white kids get a dressing down, but the Sharks are run right off their spot.
These changes are welcome on two levels, the first is simply that they make the stakes of the story more immediate, relatable, and dire. The second is that they bring the themes right out into the open; whereas they lived beneath the surface in the 1961 version, this version confronts them and gives the film more relevance to both the 1950s and today’s reality in America.
The other significant change is that this time around, the cast of Latinx characters is played by Latinx actors, a refreshing change. Most of the cast is also largely unknown –a testament to Spielberg’s power as a filmmaker– including Rachel Zegler as Maria, who is, in a word, perfect. Her performance is spot on in all respects, not the least of which is that she has a beautiful singing voice. Ansel Elgort is the best known of the younger cast, and he’s fine. He can sing, and while I think he is adequate to the task, he is outshone by most of the supporting cast. The biggest exception to this is Tony and Maria’s first meeting at the dance, in which their chemistry is most apparent, and the filmmaking makes clear the singular focus that only youthful puppy love can bring.
David Alvarez and Mike Faist play Bernardo and Riff, the leaders of the gangs. Each of them brings fire to their performance, both coming from different places of desperation, and each of them reacts wearing their disdain openly. The real standout is Ariana DeBose as Anita, though, who dials the passion to eleven in all the best ways, and leads a large-scale setpiece version of America with infectious joy.
Last but certainly not least, Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 version) joins the cast as Valentina, the widow who owns the pharmacy the Jets hang out in. Her character being Puerto Rican adds further depth to the complicated racial dynamics at play in the film.
It takes a lot of hubris to remake a classic, but Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker with endless clout and talent. West Side Story is his first musical -a fact that still boggles the mind a little given how good this movie is.
West Side Story premieres in theatres Friday, December 10th
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