A talented supporting cast steals the spotlight in Steven Spielberg’s magnificent remake of West Side Story. The iconic filmmaker gives great deference to the 1957 Broadway musical and 1961 classic film. But puts a blockbuster stamp on a sweeping epic that will absolutely thrill audiences. The tragic love story is shot on a grand scale with the best production values of the year. My only critique is that the leads, particularly newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, are outshined by stunning ensemble players. Ariana DeBose sets the screen on fire as Anita. She’ll need to free up shelf space for awards season.
In the late fifties on Manhattan’s west side, decrepit slums are being cleared to build Lincoln Center. Poor whites and Puerto Rican immigrants face imminent eviction from their homes. Roughneck gangs viciously fight for the scraps of territory they have left. Irish, Italian, and Polish youths cause mayhem as the Jets. Their leader, Riff (Mike Faist), wants a brawl to settle neighborhood rights. The Puerto Rican Sharks, led by the scrappy boxer, Bernardo (David Alvarez), are tired of being subjugated. Riff decides to bring terms for the showdown at a school dance. He begs Tony (Ansel Elgort), the Jets co-founder, to rejoin the gang and help them to force the Puerto Ricans out.
Bernardo lives with his girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose), and younger sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler). The women are sick of the gang violence. They see America as the pathway out of poverty. The Jets and Sharks meet at the dance as planned, but a surprising development catches everyone off guard. It’s love at first sight for Tony and Maria. Their forbidden romance sends shockwaves through both gangs.
West Side Story updates the Romeo and Juliet storyline with socioeconomic and racial themes. The film shows the folly of gang warfare when both groups are poverty stricken. Tony and Maria’s love blooms in an atmosphere of animosity and hatred. Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan) depicts their affair as a luminous escape from a gritty environment. They attempt to rise above the ugliness, but are sadly doomed by the ignorance of others. A cautionary tale that unfortunately remains as relevant today as it did six decades ago.
West Side Story’s music and choreography are wonders to behold. The cherished songs of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are gloriously staged by Tony Award winning choreographer Justin Peck. The dance routines are astounding. Anita and her friends sing “America” as they prance, twirl, and pirouette through the streets. It is the most elaborate and exhilarating dance sequence I have ever seen. Ariana DeBose is breathtakingly good. She wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress by a mile.
Ansel Elgort and YouTube star Rachel Zegler, in her feature film debut, have middling chemistry. They’re decent together, but don’t nearly have the electricity of David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose. Zegler has a beautiful soprano vocal range. She’s just not on DeBose’s level as a dancer and actress. Ariana DeBose devours every scene they have together.
Steven Spielberg proves again his dexterity as an artist. Tackling a beloved film and musical is risky to say the least. He strikes the perfect balance with his vision of West Side Story. I’m still humming, “When you’re a Jet. You’re a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette to your last dying day.” West Side Story is a production of Amblin Entertainment and TSG Entertainment. It will be released exclusively in theaters on December 10th from 20th Century Studios.