West Side Story is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that chances are you’ll reference it by pure accident, even if you’ve never seen it.
Everything about the musical is iconic: the timeless story, a 20th-century riff on Romeo & Juliet; Leonard Bernstein and the recently-passed Stephen Sondheim’s legendary songs; the ten-time Oscar-winning 1961 film, frequently regarded as one of the greatest movie musicals in history. West Side Story’s status in the cultural pantheon also means that it is ripe for Hollywood’s execrable obsession with rebooting every idea it ever had — remaking this particular slice of American popular culture, though? That is sheer audaciousness that no filmmaker could reasonably pull off.
Unless your name is Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg has never director a musical before, despite his unmatched versatility. (Who else could deliver E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, and Schindler’s List in a decade?) After Ridley Scott stretched and ripped his creative limits with House of Gucci, there was some reason to be concerned. How silly that turned out to be: Spielberg’s West Side Story is a dazzling, emotional triumph that rewrites the parameters of how we perceive his talent and how an adaptation can and should look.
In all its forms, West Side Story tells the story of Tony (Angel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), two young people who fall in love in a 1950s New York neighborhood on the brink of demolition. The impending destruction exacerbates tensions between Tony’s poor white community governed by the Jets gang and Maria’s Puerto Rican community, including her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose), and the Sharks gang. Tony and Maria’s love-at-first-sight fairytale makes things worse between the two gangs, leading to a winner-takes-all rumble that puts the lovers square in the middle.
As all adaptations should but frequently don’t, Spielberg takes complete advantage of the film medium and new cultural context to expand and brighten the world he’s claiming as his own. His dynamic approach to direction – sharp angles and sweeping shots – makes nearly every scene sizzle with breathless, absorbing energy. He immaculately stages and captures the musical’s iconic dance sequences, imbuing them with the urgency of Saving Private Ryan’s opening battle sequence and the wonder of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’s bike ride in the sky. The physical confrontations between the Jets and Sharks are disarmingly tense, even if you already know the outcomes. Tony and Maria’s late-night meeting on her fire escape floats with unabashedly romanticism, the kind that Hollywood has largely forgotten. Even though the film’s sparks begin to dim halfway through (it is 2-and-a-half hours, after all), the editing keeps the emotional and narrative momentum steady. Spielberg doesn’t waste a single frame, using each one to cast a powerful and immersive spell.
Spielberg fully embraces the spirit and aesthetic of Old Hollywood, but he also makes choices to modernize and revitalize the half-century-old book. The decision to freely mix Spanish and English languages in the script without subtitles is a powerful choice that subtly reinforces the themes of cultural community, xenophobia, assimilation, and racism. The creation of Valentina not only grants the Oscar-winning Rita Moreno, the original Anita from the 1961 film, a significant role but deepens the character and plot dynamics in unexpected and effective ways. The character Anybodys is reimagined as transgender, an acknowledgment that people outside of the traditional gender binary have always existed. The songs themselves are left alone, but where they land in the narrative and who sings them changes at times. Seeing someone besides Maria sing “Somewhere” is surprising, but it’s a choice that packs an emotional punch. Every update or change Spielberg makes to the original feels genuine and truthful to its spirit, rather than redundant or pointless. The changes help make West Side Story work for audiences old and new.
Just as daring as the narrative changes is the cast, filled with relatively new faces to Hollywood. Filling Natalie Wood and Moreno’s shoes is an exceedingly tall order, but everyone rises to the occasion. Rachel Zegler’s wide-eyed, gentle gaze was made for the silver screen, and her voice is stunning. Ansel Elgort, famous for The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver, is a surprisingly capable romantic counterpart as Tony, sharing palpable chemistry with Zegler and possessing a crooner’s vocal tone that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Frank Sinatra biopic. (I would be remiss not to acknowledge the sexual assault allegations made against Elgort.) Ariana DeBose, as Moreno did before her, nearly runs away with the whole movie as Anita, with a fierce screen presence that conveys power, strength, and devastation with intense clarity. Speaking of Moreno, the legendary actress reminds us why Hollywood’s refusal to use her after winning an Oscar for the original West Side Story is one of its most grievous crimes. She’s a beautiful addition, and a second competitive Oscar nomination would be well-deserved. (The fact that she would be competing against her costar playing the role she originated is the kind of nerdy awards fun I live for.)
So yes, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a miracle. It is a spirited adaptation that radiates life at every turn and unearths new paths of relevance for a new age and generation. It wraps itself around and inside of you, tapping into emotions in a way that justifies the cinematic experience, whether you watch in a theater or at home. Hollywood adaptations and remakes have rarely been this assured, impactful, and downright entertaining; it’s nearly impossible for one to exceed the original. The fact that you can compellingly argue that Spielberg has done just that is almost inconceivable in this era of filmmaking. At the very least, West Side Story further confirms that Spielberg is a class all his own, just as Stephen Sondheim was.