It’s evident fairly early on in Steven Spielberg’s exceptional re-imagining of West Side Story that this production is something special, something willing to be bolder, grittier and more self-aware than its predecessors (of which there have been many, most notably the 1957 Broadway debut and the subsequent 1961 film). Featuring a splendid orchestral score (Leonard Bernstein’s original, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel), the film opens with Riff (Mike Faist, more on his scene stealing later) and the Jets scouring the rubble of their midtown Manhattan neighborhood for paint and supplies, though for what we don’t know yet.
The neighborhood is in ruins because the city is making way for what will become Lincoln Center, that mecca for the arts that is today one of New York City’s cultural jewels. But on this day in the late 1950s, Riff and his gang are more concerned with another type of evolution happening on the streets where they grew up, where their fathers grew up, and their fathers and so on: the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants moving in and making the area home. The teens—paint, rags and other paraphernalia in hand—are headed, it turns out, toward a massive mural of the Puerto Rican flag, which they promptly set about defacing. Of course, the Sharks, the opposing gang of Puerto Rican teens, are in hot pursuit and in no time at all, a massive fight breaks out. But this is not the glossy, no-impact mid-century fight scene in a movie musical. That’s made clear the moment a paint can brutally careens into the side of someone’s head, knocking him out as the street fight rages on around him. And just like that (and in many, many more ways to come), Spielberg confirms that his West Side Story is one for a new generation, one that isn’t afraid to confront the messiness at the core of this classic, tragic love story and, perhaps more importantly, ask us to do the same.
Adapted by the great playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America; Lincoln), West Side Story revolves around Maria (a magnificent debut from Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort), the star-crossed lovers from different sides of the neighborhood whose love, though it may be strong enough to draw them together against the odds, will ultimately tear their communities apart in ways both tragic and tragically preventable. Kushner’s script is an exceptional adaptation—certainly the best out of this year’s crop of musicals (sit down, Dear Evan Hansen)—and each of his many wise decisions reveal themselves over the course of the film, some of them small but powerful, others fundamental to the film’s much-improved narrative. In this production, for example, Maria lives with Anita (a brilliant Ariana DeBose), who makes dresses in her living room-turned-studio while Maria works as a maid in a department store, not a tailor shop. Kushner also opts to restore the order of the musical numbers to that of the original stage show (the 1961 film version mixed them up a bit) and imbues the script with nearly as much Spanish as English (none of which is subtitled, a choice that celebrates the language and immerses the audience that much more into the world of the film). And that’s just to name a few (keep an eye out for a visit to The Cloisters, a wonderfully fun take on “Dear Officer Krupke,” and the most heart-wrenching version of “Somewhere” perhaps ever.)
It’s a solid foundation to work from, and Spielberg’s magnetic cast makes happy work of it. Elgort is perhaps the only weak link here, but even he has a background in dance and holds his own among the powerhouses surrounding him. As Anita, DeBose steps confidently into perhaps the most iconic supporting role in musical theater (and don’t worry, the role created for grande dame Rita Moreno is, in a word, outstanding). DeBose’s chemistry with David Alvarez, a cocky but endearingly protective Bernardo, is undeniable, and her sisterly bond with Maria makes their falling out towards the end of the film all the more heartbreaking. The world may not be ready for Mike Faist, whose Riff is as sharp as he is vulnerable, a kid who’s only got his wits to rely on as the world changes around him in ways he’s not entirely OK with. I saw Faist in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, and he nearly stole the show then. Here, it’s Elgort who has to keep up when he and Faist share a scene. May there be much more to come for this promising young actor.
But the real revelation here is Zegler, who won the role after a nationwide (global?) search for just the right Latina actress to portray the innocent (but not naive) Maria; Spielberg and his creative team approached every aspect of the production this thoughtfully. No shade to Natalie Wood, but she’d never get the part these days. In Zegler, Spielberg found a young woman who can sing, of course, but it’s her performance throughout the film that is something quite special, as she transforms from a wistful romantic to a woman torn apart by heartbreak.
All of that—the first-rate script, the remarkable ensemble cast—doesn’t even scratch the surface of the real triumph here: Spielberg’s breathtaking filmmaking. The man has made more than 50 feature films in his decades-long career, not one of them a musical. But you’d never know it. From the sweeping camera work during elaborate dance scenes to romantic close-ups as Maria and Tony fall in love, Spielberg knows exactly where to put the camera when, making every frame a wonder. Filming choreography in particular isn’t easy (just ask John Chu of In the Heights); in Spielberg’s more than capable hands, the film’s most robust numbers evoke the golden era of movie musicals, the filmmaker’s welcome homage to bygone cinematic magic.
And that’s exactly what the sum of all these singularly impressive elements adds up to: magic. West Side Story is the kind of film that makes you sit up a little straighter in your seat with each passing scene, a piece of work so special that it’s apparent even as you watch it, let alone by the time the credits roll. There’s a reason Steven Spielberg is one of our most acclaimed and appreciated contemporary filmmakers, and it’s because he can make marvels like this—and make us all remember how marvelous movies can be.
West Side Story opens theatrically on December 10.
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