There’s always seemed to be a certain musicality to the way Steven Spielberg has treated his camera; even in a dry newspaper procedural, it glides and pirouettes, at times with a balletic grace. So to see him tackle a musical seems like practically a perfect fit, and, well, that inclination would prove to be accurate, as the filmmaking maestro unleashes his inner theater kid with the lavish and dynamically orchestrated new adaptation of the timeless musical that is West Side Story. It’s a film that’s always felt like he’s been hinting towards: To watch his nimble blockbusters of the past is to see the hint of an MGM spectacle he’s had in him all this time. And it’s incredibly thrilling to watch him finally realize that ambition.
Initially it might seem like West Side Story might be some safe choice for the director to take his first official foray into the genre. Jerome Robbins’ rousing stage show, first performed in 1957, remains a towering popular classic of the medium; the songs, courtesy of Leonard Bernstein and the late lyricist Stephen Sondheim, are so beloved by so many that it would be almost impossible not to wring joy from them. And Spielberg knows that he’s already competing with a stunning screen version of the Broadway staple that is Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation, which swept the Oscars and has conquered hearts for decades. But he also knows better than to reinvent the entire show. His West Side Story boasts no new songs but a nice little collection of small tweaks to the blueprint of its mythic romance, adding a new rich sense of a sociopolitical backdrop to the work which looks to transport Romeo & Juliet to the streets of Upper West Side New York circa the 1950s. Here, reformed teenage hoodlum Tony (Ansel Elgort), one-time leader of The Jets, falls in love at first sight with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of sworn rival Bernardo (David Alvarez), who’s head of the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks. Those who know the tragic trajectory of the story will nod along to every beat.
But Spielberg grabs us immediately; even if you’ve memorized West Side Story, through his eyes there’s a new sense of life. The film opens with a sweeping overhead survey of the NYC neighborhood where its plot unfolds and, in one of the richer tweaks, as construction crews tear down old buildings to make room for new ones. Elegantly, persuasively, he foregrounds the forces of gentrification that loom over both sides of a pointless adolescent turf war. (A patina of 1950s social realism has long been one of this musical’s selling points, and it gets an extra layer of grit here in the barbed wire and twisted metal of Adam Stockhausen’s production design and the exuberant athleticism of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography.) The Jets and Sharks are at each other’s throats for territory, but they can’t see that they’re both being muscled out of a city — and maybe a country — that views all of them as basically vermin. Later, Spielberg will underline the shared lot of these warring factions with a striking overhead shot of their shadows converging during a confrontation, merging into one amorphous silhouette of impending calamity.
Working from a new adaptation by the great playwright Tony Kushner, who punches up the dialogue between the big numbers, Spielberg revels in the opportunity to revive the glamour of a bygone era of Hollywood musicals, all while making some crucial, thoughtful upgrades. Gone, of course, is the whitewashing of the ’61 version. Here, the Puerto Rican characters are all portrayed by Latin actors. The film goes further in its stabs at cultural authenticity by handing them a flowing mix of English and Spanish dialogue; with Spielberg declining to subtitle the latter, asserting a point that not only is Spanish an American language but also to heighten the timeless, universal qualities of the story. It’s a bold and pointed choice for a big Hollywood movie — the kind only a filmmaker with Spielberg’s unlimited clout and industry capital could insist upon.
Spielberg’s filmmaking, of course, is another language intuitive enough for any moviegoer to understand. His instinctive sense of visual rhythm, proportion and kinetic flow, his gift for orchestrating moments that trigger near-Pavlovian bursts of feeling touch nearly every scene of this movie. When the Sharks and Jets converge at a school gym for a little dance off of sorts, the dazzling swirls of color (supplied in part by Paul Tazewell’s costumes) and the unifying sweep of the camera produce a special kind of rapture. The collision of bodies — and of tempers, cultures, identities — yanks you into the moment with an almost physical force. That dance serves as the backdrop for the first glimmers of the central romance and an entrance for Tony, whom Elgort gives a certain appropriately moody, simmering attitude in what I would say is his first good performance. Elgort moves gracefully through the frame and he croons his way pretty pleasantly through Tony’s big early numbers like “Something’s Coming” and “María.” And he’s also the rare incarnation of Tony that actually convinces as someone with a violent past.
The rest of the cast is even better. The superb Zegler brings a quality of luminous intelligence to María’s wide-eyed naiveté; her clear-as-a-bell singing and deft timing serve her well amid the ebullient comedy of “I Feel Pretty,” and also amid the soaring passions of “Tonight,” in which a fire escape becomes Tony and María’s romantic refuge. (That scene has long been one of West Side Story‘s emotional high points, and Spielberg’s staging — aided here by Justin Peck’s sterling choreography — are a model of how dynamic camera movement, strategic closeups and physically nimble performers can breathe fresh life into even the oldest chestnut.) Ariana DeBose as well offers a rainbow of conflicting emotions as Sharks moll Anita, her brassy confidence shattering into heartbreak. The performance suffers only in comparison to the turn of her predecessor in the same role, Rita Moreno, who brings a wearied wisdom to this new version in the newly created part of Tony’s shopkeeper boss and mentor. There’s also David Alvarez who’s pretty arresting as the aforementioned Sharks swaggering leader, Bernardo, but best in show might be Mike Faist as Jets honcho Riff, who brings an electrifying wiry physicality and wise-guy attitude.
Of course, the real star here is the staging, a balm for an age of clumsy Broadway translations. It’s in such a visual display that Spielberg shows how directing a musical has seemingly shaken something loose in him, as he tries to take on this notable material. With every number you can feel him playfully challenging Wise and Robbins’ interpretation and also, crucially, challenging himself, whether he’s having Tony, Riff and their friends play an acrobatic game of keep-away with a loaded gun during the tense, disquieting “Cool” or staging the riotous comic relief of “Gee, Officer Krupke!” in a police department station house, all the better for the Jets to thumb their noses at authority. It all reaches a culmination with “America,” in which Anita and Bernardo spar with quick-witted ingenuity over the joys and perils of assimilation — a journey, that in another notable tweak, rightly progresses from a domestic squabble to a traffic-stopping dance of almost kaleidoscopic beauty. Therein lies the spry paradox of this West Side Story, which knows that in sensitive enough hands, close-to-the-bone realism and bright-hued formalism can be flip sides of the same stylistic coin. Spielberg’s movie may be rougher, grittier, more lived-in and, in terms of cultural representation, more truthful than the 1961 adaptation. But it is also more unabashedly classical, more radiantly stylized, than just about anything a major American studio has released in years.
That includes some of Spielberg’s own movies. Over the past decade or more he has undertaken a doggedly optimistic search for what might be called the soul of America — a quest that has reliably led him into the past, into the Watergate-era newsrooms of The Post and the Civil War-era congressional chambers of Lincoln. West Side Story belongs more in their company than you might think; it isn’t a historical drama, but there’s no overlooking its place in history. Spielberg, attentive as he is to the quality of the singing and dancing, operates from the conviction that this Broadway-to-Hollywood warhorse still has something important to say. And conviction — a commitment that can’t be faked, and a quality by which every musical lives or dies — is what underpins, energizes and ultimately justifies this West Side Story. By the end, I was moved by Tony and María’s tragic love story, but even more so by Spielberg’s sheer faith in the transporting power of movies. He believes there’s still a place for them, and for us. Elegantly graceful and deeply intuitive, Spielberg’s West Side Story sees the filmmaker take the well-known tale and inject it with a new sense of life, an urgent vibrancy that’s an enrapturing piece of classicism.
West Side Story is playing in Theaters nationwide