Come on, admit it. When you first heard that Steven Spielberg was making another film of the landmark musical West Side Story, you probably thought it might become a classic case of a director being badly mismatched with the material.
But that’s selling Spielberg short. As a friend and fellow critic said, the man knows how to make movies.
Updated to better emphasize the material’s Puerto Rican ethnicity, the movie also gives its Romeo/Juliet love story an urban renewal context. Poor whites and Puerto Ricans are being driven from their West Side Manhattan neighborhood to make way for Lincoln Center.
Moreover, Spielberg fills the movie with young faces. Tony, played by Ansel Elgort with Brandoesque seasoning, is a young man just out of prison. He, of course, falls for Maria (Rachel Zegler), and the two share some of the best moments American musical theater has produced, notably Tonight, Tonight.
Ariana DeBose brings spitfire urgency to the role of Anita, lover of Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks, the gang rivals of the Jets, the group Tony founded with his lifelong pal Riff (Mike Faist).
Rita Moreno, who played the role of Anita in the 1961 movie, appears in a newly created role. She's Valentina, widow of the man who owned the neighborhood drug store and a devoted adult in Tony’s life. She offers Tony a job and shelter upon his release from prison. (Prison for Tony is another new twist.)
Moreno is given the key song, Somewhere, which may seem a bit odd but it connects Spielberg’s version to its predecessor. It's a song of mourning -- also a hope and a wish.
High points include the dance at the gym and America, crisply rendered by an ensemble led by DeBose, who dominates every scene she’s in.
It should also be noted that Zegler's Maria is angelic than usual; she has a gritty quality and has been given moments of feminist assertion that add contemporary flavor. She insists that she’s going to think for herself.
An odd quality pervades this West Side Story. The movie attempts to be grounded in urban reality but also inhabits a world totally its own — neither New York of the 1950s nor of today.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski gives the movie a tightly defined atmosphere that’s accentuated by the often-piercing rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s score. We’re not really in New York. We’re in Cinemaland.
Instead of an overture, the movie begins with the sound of whistling — notes recognizable as part of the score. It’s worth pointing out that the late Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, the best of which hold up to this day.
When West Side Story bowed on Broadway in 1957, New York City was rife with gang violence. Serious publications were writing articles about wayward kids who were being dubbed juvenile delinquents. It’s no longer possible for the material to feel topical in the same way as it did when it debuted on Broadway.
Spielberg’s attempts to acknowledge contemporary realities — with help from a screenplay by Tony Kushner — can feel a bit forced.
But the material has a heart that beats loudly for a love that never fully blossoms, even though in this version Maria and Tony are seen getting out of bed after a night of love. They’re allowed consummation before the tragedy peaks.
And then there’s Leonard Bernstein’s music: glorious, assertive, full of color, and rippling with an undertow of anxiety. Thanks to both the New York Philharmonic and The Los Angeles Philharmonic for high voltage performances on the movie's soundtrack.
Not everything clicks. The Officer Krupke number doesn’t land with the comic impact it needs and watching Elgort and Zegler negotiate the perils of a fire escape while singing Tonight probably overworks the idea of putting barriers between Tony and Maria.
And while we're on the subject, Zegler makes a better Maria than Elgort, a Tony. For one thing, her voice is stronger than his.
But overall Spielberg brings life, fresh faces, and visual dynamism to this version of West Side Story, and stories about love between people from antagonistic cultures have no expiration date.
So, Spielberg’s West Side Story? There’s a place for it.*
*As West Side Story begins to be seen by audiences, you’ll read an increasing number of articles exploring questions of racism resulting from stereotyping of the Puerto Rican characters.
Spielberg and Kushner have made obvious attempts to stave off the criticism but it’s undeniably true that West Side Story has dated and potentially offensive elements. It’s also true that updating them or excising them entirely runs the risk of turning West Side Story into something it isn’t.
One problem I've seen mentioned: The high-point America number paints a portrait of Puerto Rico as a place few would want to live. Manhattan, of course, is so much better.
That's the argument, but it doesn't take into account the spirit of the song and the fierce presence of the singing and dancing ensemble that delivers it. It's possible to see the number as an expression of the determination of the Puerto Rican women as much as a dismissal of Puerto Rico -- which, of course, is part of America.
The detente — perhaps momentary — between Jets and Sharks at the end (together, they carry off Tony’s fallen body) and Maria’s accusatory cry (we all did it) seem more like fuzzy liberal bromides than a credible resolution of the conflict that animates much of the movie.
The movie may prompt discussion about the ways in which art can be viewed as time passes, views change, and new voices enter the discussion. The discussion should continue. I look forward to reading as much as I can by those with strong convictions about West Side Story should be shelved.
Time alters viewpoints and the “me” who watched West Side Story in 2021 is not the same as the “me” who was taken to the Broadway original in 1959. As for the 1961 movie, I was never a huge fan of a movie that cast Natalie Wood as Maria.