I’m not a fan of the 1961 film of West Side Story. Sure, the dancing was fantastic, but the lead performances by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood were bad, and her not being Puerto Rican was only part of the problem. The story needed an update for a changing world, too. There was room for improvement on that Best Picture Oscar-winning film, and Steven Spielberg’s new version is that improvement, more relevant to modern audiences while remaining a thrilling piece of cinema.
If you’ve seen any previous edition of this musical Romeo and Juliet story, Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have made something quite different. Everything takes place in a neighborhood that looks like a war zone because the city is knocking down the cheap apartments in midtown Manhattan to build Lincoln Center. The Europeans feel like the Puerto Ricans are kicking them out, but the Latins are about to be ejected themselves to make room for the performing arts complex, and Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) taunts the white kids that at least the Puerto Ricans will still have jobs working security for the rich people who will move into the neighborhood. When he orders the Sharks out of an empty lot, Bernardo (David Alvarez) defies the police by singing the pride anthem “La Borinqueña” and getting his neighbors to join in, a move that gives the character greater stature and also corrects for the fact that Bernardo has so little singing to do in the show’s original version. The film does not translate the considerable amount of Spanish dialogue, though working out what’s said shouldn’t be too hard for those of us in Texas.
Spielberg’s direction has been ponderous at times, but the propulsive force of Leonard Bernstein’s music — conducted by no less than Gustavo Dudamel, who makes the score sound better than it ever has — forces him to move here. The director does great with the opening sequence, where the camera follows the Jets through the streets, dancing and gathering numbers as they go. The same goes for the dance at the school gym, which showcases the spectacular moves by the dancers while also highlighting the Jets and the Sharks vying for territory on the dance floor. Ballet superstar Justin Peck takes charge of the dances, and while he uses a good chunk of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, he makes “Cool” into a bit where Tony (Ansel Elgort) tries to keep a gun away from Riff (Mike Faist) and the other Jets. Spielberg matches him with inspired bits of staging everywhere: That fatal rumble takes place in a warehouse amid giant piles of salt, while Tony and Maria (Rachel Zegler) sing “One Hand, One Heart” in the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Art Museum, where the song fits the church-like setting.
Elgort is a bit wobbly on Tony’s top notes, but he’s here for his dancing skills. If you saw him in Baby Driver, you know how well he moves, and his physical grace convinces us that Tony is a special guy in this burned-out neighborhood. The heavy singing load is carried by Zegler, making her acting debut and displaying operatic range on “Tonight” and “I Have a Love.” Nearly stealing the film outright is Ariana DeBose as Anita, who is the best dancer in this cast (no mean feat) and collapses in grief when she learns of her boyfriend’s murder. This script makes richer stuff out of the supporting roles, too — Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) is a nerdy accounting student who wants no part of the gang war until he sees his friend killed, while Anybodys (Iris Menas) is a haunting presence lurking in the background before viciously beating a fellow Jet while saying, “I’m not a girl!”
Back in 1992, Spielberg tried to insert a musical number into Hook, and, like much of the rest of that movie, it was a disaster. Three decades later, he has picked up the knack for incorporating music and dance into storytelling. More than that, he’s taken this cornerstone of the musical theater repertoire and made it come vibrantly alive for our sensibilities. The lifeblood of culture is innovating while staying in touch with traditions. In his West Side Story, he has managed that trick beautifully.
West Side Story
Starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner, based on Arthur Laurents’ musical book. Rated PG-13.