The 1961 film version of the 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story” may be legendary, but it’s the rare movie that practically begs to be remade. The movie, based on the musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, is delightful in some aspects—Rita Moreno became the first Latina actor to win an Oscar with her performance—and painfully problematic in others, particularly in its use of brown face and casting of white actors as Puerto Rican characters. With a screenplay by Tony Kushner, new arrangements by David Newman, and choreography by Justin Peck, director Steven Spielberg decided to make a remake of “West Side Story” his first movie musical in his long and storied career, and it’s glorious, even if many of the problems inherent in the original show are still present despite some attempts to make it more inclusive.
“West Side Story” is inspired by “Romeo and Juliet” and set in 1957 New York City, and centers around two rival street gangs—the Sharks (made up of Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (white NYC natives). At a dance one evening, Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) and María (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Shark leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), lock eyes across the dance floor and fall in love at first sight. But the Jets exhibit aggressive racist behavior toward the Sharks, from vandalizing a mural of the Puerto Rican flag to constantly telling them to “go back where they came from,” and the Sharks want nothing to do with them, so Tony and María’s romance is a problem from the start, and their romance leads to serious problems for both sides.
Watching “West Side Story,” it’s hard to believe that Spielberg has never directed a musical before, and even more difficult to imagine him ever doing anything else. His work with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is fresh while also feeling like the most old-school musical we’ve seen in a hot minute, and I use the term “old-school” in the best way possible. Unlike a lot of recent movie musicals, Spielberg often allows the camera to remain focused on the actors and dancers without a lot of cuts and camera moves interrupting their movement, allowing the choreography to shine. And in more intimate scenes that don’t involve a large cast and lots of dancing, such as Tony and María’s duets “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” close-ups on the actors as they sing to one another help sell their intimacy and their emotion. Musical numbers aside, “West Side Story” is just straight up beautiful, from its bright colors to the variety of overhead and tracking shots. There’s never a moment when the locations in “West Side Story” feel realistic, from the opening tracking shot revealing the rubble of the neighborhood where new developments are set to be constructed to the fire escape where María and Tony have their first rendezvous, and that’s part of its charm; “West Side Story” may have been filmed on location in New York and New Jersey, but it has the aesthetic of an old Hollywood musical shot on a soundstage filled with manufactured sets.
The cast, which is largely comprised of relative newcomers, is by-and-large phenomenal. Zegler, in her first movie role, is a fantastic find; besides her beautiful singing voice, she has a wide-eyed innocent look about her that suits María—a character embarking on her first real romance and clearing trying to find her way through a world that is prejudiced against her—perfectly. She’s most impressive not in the scenes she shares with Elgort, however, but in the scenes on her own, particularly in the “I Feel Pretty” number, in which she flits around her fellow coworkers—cleaners at a fancy department store—and sings about how her newfound love makes her feel as if she is truly gliding on air. Alvarez is a great Bernardo, and Mike Faist is solid as Riff, Jets leader and Tony’s troublemaker friend. And Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original film, has a significant supporting role here as drugstore proprietor Valentina, a role originally played by a man called Doc, and who serves as a sort of mentor to Tony and middle person between the Sharks and the Jets. Her performance strikes just the right balance of sentiment and necessity—necessity because her character is integral to the story, not just present to create a nostalgic connection between this film and its predecessor. The real standout, however, is Ariana DeBose as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and María’s friend, who—besides being a phenomenal dancer, coming from Broadway’s “Hamilton”—is remarkably expressive. Her fiery personality could be written off as a stereotype, but she makes Anita feel more three-dimensional, particularly in the heart-breaking circumstances her character faces in the film’s final act. Broadway veteran Brian d’Arcy James and Corey Stoll provide strong support as Officer Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank. Elgort is really the only cast member who brings everything down a peg. He isn’t horrible by any means, even though his singing struggles a bit compared to the other cast members, but there’s an air of insincerity to his performance that occasionally makes it feel like he’s trying too hard. It doesn’t help that real-world sexual assault allegations against him makes his presence, and particularly his character’s pursuit of María, feel icky.
If you love the music in “West Side Story” then you’ll still be won over by it in this adaptation, which hews closers to the Broadway version than the 1961 film while making some other changes and omissions as well. Some of them don’t work as well, like the element of humor in Elgort’s performance of “Maria” that has the lovestruck young man blindly stomping through the pigeons an old lady is feeding, while others entirely change the context of the song. In this movie, the song “Somewhere,” originally a duet between María and Tony, is sung by Valentina right after a fateful confrontation between the Sharks and the Jets. In this context, the lyrics “There’s a place for us/somewhere a place for us” become less about Tony and María specifically and more about the Puerto Rican immigrants as a whole, struggling to fit in to a community that doesn’t want them there. This “West Side Story” also importantly casts Latinx actors as the Puerto Rican characters, encompassing a diverse array of light and dark skin tones and backgrounds. The characters frequently speak Spanish, and the film doesn’t include English subtitles, allowing both languages to exist on an equal level, although the film sometimes has an annoying tendency to repeat the Spanish phrases in English. While these things are big steps in a better direction from the 1961 film, there are still some issues, particularly in the fact that the actors put on accents that feel overdone; rather than being authentic Puerto Rican accents, they feel more like the thick accent a white person would imagine a Puerto Rican native having. That is an issue that could have easily been fixed, but other issues are more inherent in the source material, such as its shallow take on the experience of those trying to find a place in a different society and culture (as “West Side Story” does take a second to point out, Puerto Ricans are American citizens and therefore not immigrants). It probably doesn’t help that all of the major forces behind the camera are white men who will never fully be able to create completely authentic representation no matter how much research they do, but the fact is that we need more creators telling their own stories as opposed to rehashing the same material over and over again.
Despite its issues, it was hard for me not to be swept up by the spectacle and emotion of “West Side Story.” It’s a real joy from start to finish, and the staging and direction, as well as the better (if still not perfect) representation actually makes it an improvement over the 1961 film. Spielberg may have never made a musical before now, but he effortlessly approaches an old-fashioned musical with modern filmmaking techniques, and the result is often nothing short of magical.
“West Side Story” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 156 minutes. Rated PG-13.