If you’re looking for a review of West Side Story from the perspective of an expert, please follow the link to Lou Harry’s review of the theatrical release last December. At the time, we mulled the possibility of he and I each publishing a review, reflecting our vastly disparate experience with musicals and theater. He knows what he’s talking about in that realm, and I do not. Scheduling got in the way. It happens.
I finally got a chance to see the film on a Saturday following release; the audience was sparse, which was OK because I found myself unexpectedly moved for the entire runtime. I’m not afraid of crying at a movie, but it was a pretty intense couple hours. I did not expect that. My experience with the Academy Award-winning 1961 West Side Story is hearing my grandmother talk about how much she hates it. Not that I listen to her for movie advice, but, well … she was there at the time, so it just fell lower and lower on my list.
It’s clear from the first scene of Steven Spielberg’s version, though, that his take on the material is made not only with an extraordinary amount of love but also the craftsmanship and skill to turn what could’ve been a glorified fan film into one of 2021’s most exciting cinematic experiences. He keeps the camera itself in near constant movement along with his performers, whose choreography expresses the emotions of the characters both large and small.
West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet told against the backdrop of 1950s New York City in a neighborhood where the poor whites are finding themselves displaced by Puerto Rican immigrants. The Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), are a bunch of angry White kids; the Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) are the Puerto Rican men trying to protect the meager lives their families are building in America. Our proxy Romeo, Tony (Ansel Elgort), is the former leader of the Jets, recently released from prison and eager to leave violence behind for something greater. His fate is set when he meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo’s younger sister, at a school dance held by adults to try to bring the two communities together.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner do a stellar job of giving both communities coherent motivations, even while the Jets are clearly the more villainous of the two groups in their actions as the story progresses. Faist as Riff is a standout. Critics have compared him favorably to Elgort’s Tony, but Elgort has a relatively thankless role whereas Riff gets to experience larger emotions about the world around him. I think Elgort’s performance has gotten a bad rap: He’s perfectly adequate as the dope who gets everyone, and himself, killed because he falls in love at first sight. Given how wonderful Zegler is as Maria, it’s hard not to blame him.
Zegler and Faist are stand-outs, but I would be remiss not to mention Ariana DeBose as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, and her show-stopping performance of the number “America.” She’s probably going to win an Academy Award, and it would be much deserved.
As someone who watches hundreds of movies year, it was downright shocking to see something made with such technical perfection — a film that made me feel transported and in awe of how it told a well-known story so kinetically without undermining the emotional core of the story. A lot of onscreen musicals have left me cold due to a visual busy-ness that always feels like filmmakers trying to take advantage of every tool they wouldn’t have on a stage. Spielberg’s film certainly does that, but he uses every option available to him in just the right way.
I’m a West Side Story novice and was taken aback by how essential it still felt today. My understanding is that Spielberg and Kushner’s new script reshuffles some songs and brings a few character elements into emphasis (including making the tomboy character officially transgender), and all those changes must have worked, insofar as they worked well for me. Although set in the 1950s, the stories about immigration and White reaction to new communities only continues to be essential. Songs like “America” must feel different but still ring true.
The question asked by everyone when West Side Story was announced (and asked and answered in Lou’s review on our very site) is whether it was necessary to remake such a beloved classic. What’s the point? In my view, the purpose — besides Spielberg’s vested interest in doing so — is to net viewers like myself (who might have put off the original for another few years) with a version slightly more attuned to the world we live in now. I’ll certainly watch the original now, but this will probably remain the West Side Story I return to again and again.
West Side Story is now available to stream on Disney+ and HBO Max. It will be available on 4K & Blu-ray on March 15, with an extensive making-of documentary and the songs separated for individual viewing.