Review: ‘West Side Story’

Image via Amblin Entertainment

It would be easy to classify Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story as a remake of the 1961 original, but the truth is that “remake” fails to capture the lightning that Spielberg has caught in his proverbial bottle. Rita Moreno wasn’t kidding when she recently told ABC News that the new take on a familiar classic is not, in fact, a remake — it’s a reimagining.

It still tells the story of Tony, Maria, and the feuding Jets and Sharks, but also offers plenty of surprises over the course of its 156-minute runtime, especially for fans of the original film and the Broadway musical on which it is based. Spielberg’s Story somehow manages to deliver all the things that make the musical a timeless masterpiece while simultaneously infusing it with new life that sometimes makes you forget you already know where the story is headed.

This is thanks, in no small part, to the powerhouse team that Spielberg has assembled to help him realize his ambitious vision. In addition to his own creative genius, he brought Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner on board to pen a new script that keeps several gems from Arthur Laurents’ original stage play while unearthing plenty of new treasures. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski captures dreamy wide shots of a gritty 1950s New York City that never once feels like a set piece, paying special attention to Paul Tazewell’s vibrant costume designs. Justin Peck’s choreography blends new steps with throwbacks to Jerome Robbin’s unrivaled originals.

And then there are the performers, tasked with reinterpreting some of the most iconic roles in musical history for a whole new generation of viewers. Perhaps the biggest star among the young leads is Ansel Elgort, the charismatic leading man from films like The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver. Elgort’s gorgeous vibrato makes his Tony a pleasure to listen to, even if the character is somewhat darker than we’re used to as a result of a new backstory (a treatment that other characters in the film receive as well). When the time comes for him to duet with newcomer Rachel Zegler as María, the chemistry that results helps the film achieve liftoff. Zegler’s voice is a revelation, with her film debut serving as a star vehicle that has already launched her into the stratosphere. She’ll soon be appearing in Shazam: Fury of the Gods and Disney’s upcoming Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it won’t be surprising if she becomes a fixture on the movie musical circuit from here on out.

The rest of the leads are rounded out by fresh faces as well. David Alvarez plays Bernardo, the tough Puerto Rican leader of the Sharks, who commands attention in every scene he’s in. Mike Faist possesses equal gravitas as Jet leader Riff, exuding the recklessness required to make him a believable street rat. But the real scene-stealer is Ariana DeBose as Anita, Bernardo’s fiery fiancée. DeBose unapologetically radiates power and vitality in a role she’s made entirely her own, feeling no need to imitate the performance that won Rita Moreno her Oscar.

Moreno ⏤ the sole cast member to appear in both the 1961 original movie and the new adaptation ⏤ has plenty to do as Valentina, the drugstore owner who employs Tony and tries to teach him a thing or two about love (and Spanish). Spielberg wanted Moreno for the role specifically, and despite her initial hesitation to take it, the scenes that Kushner wrote for her make her one of the film’s most important characters. The combination of Kushner’s dialogue and Moreno’s sage presence elevates the script beyond what the original could have ever hoped to achieve.

This is a story about racism, after all, and Spielberg and company don’t hesitate to lean into that at every turn. One moment in particular frames Moreno in a similar mirror to the one the film holds up to our own society, begging the question of whether or not we’ve really learned anything since West Side Story first premiered on stages and screens. Moreno answers that question in a way that only a truly transcendent master can.

Despite its ten Academy Awards and widespread praise, the original film wasn’t perfect. The Sharks were not all played by authentically Latinx actors the way they are in Spielberg’s rendition. Some were played by white men and were even made up to look darker-skinned on camera. Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, who played Maria and Tony in the original, did not do their own singing, whereas Elgort, Zegler, and the rest of the cast in Spielberg’s version do.

Spielberg set out to remedy these missteps and more, and the result is a film teeming with even more relevant life than the original. Much of the Sharks’ new dialogue is delivered completely in Spanish without subtitles — a powerful and welcome choice that makes the film just as much the Sharks’ as it is the Jets’. A famous ballad is sung by someone unexpected, another bold choice with an emotional payoff. Anybodys is played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas, adding a new dimension to the film that was nonexistent in the original. A chilling moment between two characters serves as a gut-punch to anyone who knows how the story ends. 

Even some of the musical numbers don’t play the way audiences might be expecting. “Cool,” for example — which comes before “Gee, Officer Krupke” in the stage show but switched places with it in the original film to stunning effect — serves a completely different purpose this time around, a testament to Kushner’s ability to utilize both dialogue and lyrics to keep the plot moving at a brisk clip.

As a very special treat for New Yorkers, Spielberg tossed a superb gem into a blink-and-you-miss-it moment just before Tony and Maria go on their first date. Subway riders will instantly recognize the familiar high-pitched screeches that play whenever a train pulls out of the station, but eagle-eared riders will recognize the first three notes as identical to the ones at the beginning of “Somewhere.” Yes, in real life, New York City trains emit the exact minor sevenths composed by Leonard Bernstein in one of West Side Story’s most memorable songs.

Even though it’s been deemed an “electrical coincidence” by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the fact that Spielberg knows of this phenomenon’s existence and included it in his film speaks to his utter brilliance and innovation. (The next time you’re in New York, be sure to hop on a train and listen for it. If you’re quick enough, you can sing, “There’s a place…” along with it.)

For all of its well-deserved praise, West Side Story is not without its flaws. Certain characters are head-scratchingly quick to forgive the unforgivable, while others who had larger roles in previous iterations are relegated to the background. Some audience members will feel that the film’s send-off is a bit hasty, and they won’t be wrong. As for one particularly appalling decision made in the film’s final moment, this writer has questions.

And yet West Side Story does so many things right that the rest is easy enough to overlook. The best part of the film is that while you may have already seen the story play out a hundred times before, it’s reimagined in such a breathtaking new way that it’s as if you’re watching an entirely different film. It does what so few films are able to do, let alone movie musicals: it reimagines one of the top classics of all time with its own unique take on familiar themes and simultaneously delights and horrifies with its spectacle and cultural relevancy.

Just like the star-crossed lovers at its center, this West Side Story risks it all, and the result is an explosive reminder that life and love are both gifts worth celebrating, for we never really know how long we have to enjoy either one.