You don’t need to know before going into West Side Story that Steven Spielberg has been itching to make a musical for pretty much his entire career. You can feel it in the film’s opening sequence, in the glee with which he follows the white gang of the Jets as its members emerge from beneath a pile of rubble and snap and strut their way down a bustling 1950s Upper West Side street. Spielberg punctuates their walk with offhand glimpses of everyday objects moving in rhythm — a closed lighter, a tossed coin, a blown newspaper. It’s musical, sure, but it’s also … Spielbergian, reminiscent of any number of precisely, playfully choreographed scenes from his previous pictures. You half expect to see Indiana Jones swing in and start cracking his bullwhip in time to the beat.
West Side Story does feel at times like a movie to which the director’s entire career has been building. He is, after all, our foremost master of blocking, and it’s hard to think of a better arena in which to demonstrate his powers. Not just because of the grace and rigor required to stage any film musical, but this one in particular, with modern dance built into its DNA. This isn’t a popular opinion, but I’ll share it anyway: In Robert Wise’s widely-beloved, Oscar-soaked 1961 film, the camera had to step back to take in the jazzy, whirling grandeur of Jerome Robbins’s choreography — and the results were aggressively, frustratingly theatrical. Spielberg goes in the opposite direction: He’s unafraid to plunge his camera into the swirling, leaping, kicking bodies (their movements courtesy this time of New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck). He’s unafraid, in other words, to make West Side Story, above all, a movie.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner are also unafraid to tamper with the narrative, in ways that might at first seem subtle but turn out to be profound. Don’t worry (or, depending on your point of view — worry), this is still West Side Story: The tale of star-crossed lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), he formerly of the Jets and she the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks, the local Puerto Rican gang. What was once mostly a clever setting in the original (Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and writer Arthur Laurents initially envisioned the project as East Side Story, set among Catholics and Jews, so the tale’s cultural milieu was always, on some level, grafted on) here becomes an opportunity to touch on the sociopolitical roots of working-class racism and violence.
The new film opens on a devastated, practically bombed-out New York street, in the midst of the notorious, Robert Moses-led slum clearance that made way for what would one day become Lincoln Center. The Jets resent the Puerto Ricans for moving into a neighborhood that was once “theirs” — but everybody’s about to get pushed out, so they’re all fighting for scraps. This is a far cry from “two households, both alike in dignity”: The Sharks seem to be average neighborhood guys with jobs. Reluctant warriors who simply want to protect their people, they retain some semblance of a moral high ground, while the Jets are just a bunch of young, dumb, racist punks spoiling for a fight. Tony’s own hesitation to rejoin his former gang is the result of a year spent in prison for beating an Egyptian kid nearly to death during an earlier turf war.
All that new context is important, but what really makes the movie is the exuberant kineticism of its musical set pieces, particularly the big, crowded ones. The dance-off at the gym, in which the Jets and the Sharks and their respective dates face off against one another, is a kaleidoscope of movement, contrasting the sensuous moves of the Sharks against the more aggressive, athletic Jets, the camera spinning and careening among them. “America,” meanwhile, begins on a fire escape amid hanging laundry, moves through apartment building corridors, and spills out into the street into a spirited, colorful carnival of twirling dresses and bright smiles.
Spielberg and Kushner have also redistributed the songs in savvy, sometimes powerful ways. In a departure from the earlier film, they’ve restored Maria’s singing of “I Feel Pretty” to after the big climactic rumble and Tony’s killing of her brother — as it is on stage — so that tragedy looms over the number’s colorful, candy-box buoyancy; the effect is crushing. The mournful “Somewhere” is now sung not by the young lovers, but by Rita Moreno’s heartbroken Valentina (a new character, replacing Doc, the original white drugstore owner and Tony’s kindly boss — she’s basically his widow and is now in charge of the store), thus turning a love song into something downright civilizational. On the lips of this character, played by the actress whose portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film famously won her an Oscar, the piece becomes less about two doomed young lovers dreaming of a world where they can be together and more a lament for the millions who come to these shores looking for a better life only to find hate, humiliation, and murder. Such alterations probably better reflect the more despairing sociopolitical landscape of 2021 than the optimism of 1957, or 1961. You walk away from that earlier film thinking that reconciliation among these people might still be possible. No such hope exists here. But these changes aren’t opportunistic, or cynical. They’re organic. The story quite simply makes more sense this way.
Such changes also feel necessary for another reason. Because just as we’ve always suspected that Spielberg would be in his element helming a proper musical, it’s also been clear over the years that he’s all thumbs when it comes to romance. So, he and Kushner judiciously shift focus away from the young lovers to the ruins among which their love blossoms. It would not be fair, however, to say that they don’t even try for romance; this is, after all, still a riff on Romeo and Juliet. Sadly, Elgort and Zegler have zero chemistry, and their love-at-first-sight moment at that aforementioned dance remains thoroughly unconvincing. Shakespeare sold it with heavenly flights of immortal words; Wise gave it a shot with the one cinematic idea he had, which was to send everything onscreen besides Tony and Maria into a blur. Spielberg fares better, isolating the lovers with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s blinding gauntlets of otherworldly lens-flare. One appreciates the effort, if not the effect.
But the actors themselves are game, each in their own way. Zegler is the true find, a marvelous singer and a radiant persona, and Spielberg and Kaminski film her like a bright flare in a twilit ocean; her sheer presence papers over some of the more facile aspects of Maria’s characterization. Elgort, by contrast, moves through the film like a porcelain aristocrat. His performance of “Maria,” set among abandoned playgrounds and back-alleys and one gloriously shimmering puddle, feels more tenuous than heartfelt, like a rehearsal in which the actor is still working through his moves. But there are times when his reserve kind of works. He does in fact seem like a young man with a violent past trying to keep his cool. When he gets his big moment of grief right near the end, those aloof features of his briefly twist into a grotesque mush, and it’s surprisingly tender.
I’ve never been a fan of West Side Story, in part because I admire more than adore the jaunty, brassy midcentury triumphalism of Bernstein’s sound, and the combination of modern dance with gang-war hysterics has always felt like a bracing theatrical idea that never quite seemed right on a film screen. That’s a me problem, to be sure. (There is also, of course, the original’s indulgence of ethnic stereotypes, not to mention all that brownface — but at least some of those shortcomings could be traced to its era.) It’s certainly to Spielberg’s eternal credit that his film made even this curmudgeon (briefly) forget (most of) my issues with West Side Story. I suspect even the 1961 movie’s devotees might agree that this iteration surpasses Wise’s old war horse. Whether this new picture is a masterpiece, or a masterful reimagining of a troublesome original, will have to remain in the eye of the beholder.
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