I was skeptical about Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. That was probably unwise. Although he has his fair share of missteps in his filmography, Spielberg has an almost unparalleled mastery of the traditional film narrative structure, and the famed musical in many ways plays to the most formidable skills in his set. Still, my working thesis is that Hollywood’s propensity for recycling past products is best directed toward misfired features from bygone eras rather than those screen achievements that can reasonable claim “classic” as an accurate descriptor. The 1961 film version of West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, inarguably falls into that category, despite casting choices in several roles that don’t fare well under modern scrutiny. When it became clear that Spielberg wasn’t shifting the fundamentals of the story in a significant way — setting the film in a different time or place, for example — it further cemented the impression that he was embarking on an act of echoing that seemed needlessly redundant. Using the faulty gauge of promotional images and trailers, the version of West Side Story arriving sixty years later looked to be mere revival, risking the pointlessness of, say, Steve Zaillian’s All the King’s Men or, worse, the pure folly of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. I’m pleased to report that my prejudgment was as wrong as could be.
Spielberg’s West Side Story is a feat, simultaneously paying tribute to the earlier film and earnestly, incisively exposing and engaging with its shortcomings. The most obvious — and most clearly necessary — change for the better is the commitment to casting of Latino and Latina actors in the roles of the Puerto Ricans who are the stand-ins for the Capulets in the story’s reimagined Romeo and Juliet. Working from a screenplay by Tony Kushner (previously his collaborator on Munich and Lincoln), Spielberg effectively engages in a dialogue with the original work, both the film and the foundational musical. It begins from the very first moments, as Spielberg swoops his camera across an urban landscape in disarry, homes and businesses reduced to rubble by the bigotry-laced slum clearance policies of Robert Moses, the public official who spent a huge chunk of the twentieth century reshaping New York City to his preferences. Spielberg deftly establishes one of the root causes of the anger and simmering desperation that drives many of the incidents to follow. This West Side Story isn’t going to exist in some netherworld of vague motivation and consequence, the safer territory for musicals. There’s a churn of life happening around the characters, and it matters.
The approach is welcome even as it further complicates West Side Story, exposing — or further exposing, to be accurate — some flaws that are deeply embedded into the source material. Primarily, the core forbidden romance between Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) starts to look unworkable as a compelling, convincing relationship. At times, Spielberg seems to opt for the understandable, commonplace tactic of gliding over the impulsive coupling as a mere device, the MacGuffin that serves as connective tissue between the banger showtunes. His attentiveness to strengthening other portions of the narrative sets a trap, though, accentuating the way in which the extraordinary suddenness of the lovebirds’ total devotion is unearned. In the 1961 film, Maria’s third act dismissal of family tragedy for some quick canoodling plays like a forgivable contrivance. When the rest of the film effectively strives for greater authenticity, the same choice is so incongruous that it’s borderline sociopathic. Zegler goes a long way towards salvaging the moment with the insistent effervescence of her performance that hints at the innocence that might send her heads and heels somersaulting, but Elgort can’t meet her. He’s fine in the role, but can’t find the inner threads of danger, vulnerability, and unsettled self that could provide help wend the characters’ paths into a believable knot.
The clanging elements of the film stand out more because Spielberg has such steady command of his craft. That’s hardly a new attribute, but there are sequences in West Side Story that astonish anew. His visual stagings are often exquisite, inventively reframing famous numbers to give them the bristling energy of discovery. It helps that his casting choices are mostly impeccable, as evidenced by the excellent performances by David Alvarez as Bernardo, Ariana DeBose as Anita, and especially Mike Faist as Riff.
More than any of his contemporaries, Spielberg’s entire oeuvre can be interpreted as an expression of an unyielding love for movies. West Side Story is a fitting addition to the collection of titles that bear his signature. It is filled with passion and energy for cinema itself. Where the work falters, it does so because of Spielberg’s openness in reckoning with what he makes as he makes it. His West Side Story is no rehash. It’s a creative adventure he shares with anyone who buys a ticket.