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Rob Weinert-KendtDecember 09, 2021
Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez star in a scene from the movie ‘West Side Story.’ (CNS photo/Niko Tavernise, 20th Century Studios)Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez star in a scene from the movie ‘West Side Story.’ (CNS photo/Niko Tavernise, 20th Century Studios)

I have long had complicated feelings about “West Side Story,” both the 1957 Broadway musical and the 1961 film. Leonard Bernstein’s propulsive music is obviously extraordinary, and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics—in what was the recently deceased songwriter’s first professional Broadway gig—aren’t too shabby either.

But the entire project of overlaying the star-crossed template of “Romeo and Juliet” over young ethnic gangs in New York City, spinning their rumbles into balletic dance and their romantic drama into quasi-opera, has always felt faintly silly to me, not to mention appropriative. Subsequent attempts to make it gritty or relevant—in librettist Arthur Laurents’ 2009 Broadway revival, which featured some new Spanish lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, or in Ivo van Hove’s sweaty, self-conscious 2020 production—have only highlighted the creakiness of the enterprise.

What this quintessential stage musical needed, apparently, was a thoroughgoing cinematic makeover.

Still, a part of me has quietly wished that someone would get “West Side Story” right—that somehow the majesty and daring of its score might find equivalent grandeur in its storytelling. So I am overjoyed to report that filmmaker Steven Spielberg has essentially cinched the deal. With a new script by playwright Tony Kushner (with whom Spielberg made “Munich” and “Lincoln”), brilliant choreography by Justin Peck, and a mostly stunning cast, Spielberg has at last made a “West Side Story” in which every element sings and dances, and every moment counts.

What this quintessential stage musical needed, apparently, was a thoroughgoing cinematic makeover. I am not just referring to Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous, granular cinematography or the razor-sharp editing of Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar. I also mean that what Kushner, Spielberg and Peck have done is reimagine the entire world of “West Side Story” down to its finest detail. Kushner’s screenplay ratchets up the conflict and complications throughout: The neighborhood isn’t just riven by gang warfare but is also being physically torn apart by impending demolition. Young lover Tony (Ansel Elgort) isn’t just yearning for a life beyond the Jets, he is also wary of street fights after doing time for nearly killing a gang rival. Bernardo (David Alvarez) isn’t just a pugilistic gang leader, he’s a proper boxer. The gun that eventually seals the story’s tragic ending is introduced much earlier, adding another overhanging threat.

The filmmakers have reimagined the entire world of “West Side Story” down to its finest detail.

The stakes are raised from the start, with the initial fight between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks given an explicit race-war valence. When the white police lieutenant, Schrank, shows up to break up the rumble, he not only menaces the Sharks in racial terms but also presciently warns the Jets that defending their turf as the “last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians” is a dead end. This stark opening places Riff (Mike Faist) and his squad of resentful young men squarely in proto–Proud Boy territory, giving their conflict with the neighborhood’s newer arrivals a fresh jolt of menace.

Meanwhile, the depiction of Puerto Ricans in the film is probably as good as any “West Side Story” is going to get. Unlike in the 1961 film, all are played by Latino actors, and many of their scenes are in an idiomatic mix of Spanish and English. And the film doesn’t just have one Anita, the megawatt triple threat Ariana DeBose, who is alone worth the price of admission; it also has Rita Moreno, the 1961 film’s Oscar-winning Anita, in a newly created role as Valentina, who runs the neighborhood drugstore. This combination of thoughtful casting and artful reinvention may strike some as mere window-dressing; to me it seems of a piece with the filmmakers’ thoroughgoing rethinking of the material.

For a riveting few minutes—some of the best in the director’s entire oeuvre—the whole world seems to be moving on the wheels of a single, inexorable fate.

Moreno’s presence also helps soften one of the film’s only missteps: the casting of Tony with the buttery-voiced but butter-knife-dull Elgort. His heart-to-heart scenes with Valentina have a warmth and charm that his overtures to Maria (Rachel Zegler) conspicuously lack. For her part, the jewel-like soprano Zegler is a revelation, but can a love story really take flight with just one wing flapping? Romance has never been a strong suit of Spielberg’s in any case.

Fortunately, “West Side Story” does not stand or fall on the convincing chemistry of its central lovers; songs like “Maria” or “Tonight” are plenty convincing in themselves. Nor must the show rise to the level of shattering social tragedy to work. It is still a musical, after all, and it seems to succeed best as a kind of heightened fable of youthful passions in a social pressure cooker—come to think of it, a bit like “Romeo and Juliet.” The great achievement of Spielberg’s film is in the way it gives fresh, persuasive shape to those passions, and turns up the heat on that pressure cooker.

For those who have a less complicated relationship with “West Side Story” than I do, the good news is that Spielberg’s new film is almost certain to knock you out as well. It is in many ways as much a tribute to Robert Wise’s 1961 movie as it is an improvement on it. You may have felt your blood race at the famous “Tonight” quintet, in which the gangs gird for war and the lovers anticipate a night of bliss, but little can prepare you for the vertiginous thrill of Spielberg’s take on this sequence.

For a riveting few minutes—some of the best in the director’s entire oeuvre—the whole world seems to be moving on the wheels of a single, inexorable fate, even as it whirs with a rapturous sense of possibility. This heady mix of dread and hope, which is native if not exclusive to youth, has seldom been given a more pulse-pounding expression in any art form. It’s enough to make you believe that tonight won’t be just any night.

Correction, Dec. 10: This review originally misidentified the actor Ansel Elgort as Anson Elgort.

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