West Side Story is arguably one of the greatest musicals of all-time and easily one of the best movie musicals of all-time with the 1961 adaptation from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins picking up ten Oscars including Best Picture. For mere mortals, trying to make a new version would seem daunting, but Steven Spielberg launches himself headfirst into this new adaptation that feels fresh and immediate while still retaining the classic feel of the original. Working from a script from Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg’s West Side Story is more politically pointed than the 1961 version, but it still feels firmly in the mold of a classic musical with the incredible camerawork, color palette, and choreography popping off the screen. While purists can argue the finer points of which adaptation works best, there’s no question that Spielberg has approached this project with his entire heart and made a film that can proudly stand alongside Wise and Robbins’ beloved Oscar-winner.
As the Upper West Side of New York City begins to gentrify in the 1950s, the Jets (comprised of White Americans) and the Sharks (made up of Puerto Rican immigrants) are on the verge of war. The Puerto Rican community has found success in their new country, which causes resentment from the Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist). Riff wants to go to war for the territory (territory that neither group owns, but is considered a point of pride, especially for the fragile masculinity of both groups of downtrodden men), and the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez) is happy to oblige him. But thrown between these dueling factions are young lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jet and Riff’s best friend, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo’s sister and friend of Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose). As the two gangs head towards a collision course, Tony and Maria struggle to find a way to be together.
“Why do we need another West Side Story?” is a fair question when the 1961 version is such a revered classic. And yet we accept musical revivals all the time on Broadway, and it’s fair to consider Spielberg’s work in such a vein. It’s not that there’s so much room for improvement on Wise and Robbins’ version (although it’s certainly an improvement that no one is in brownface in Spielberg’s adaptation and that he frequently gives the film over to conversations in Spanish without subtitles) as much as West Side Story is a work that still feels immediate and worthy of new actors tackling the material as well as Spielberg testing out a genre he’s never fully done before.
The film is worth seeing for the breakout talent alone. While Elgort does a solid job as Tony (he can sing and his look feels era-appropriate), it’s the lesser-known names that will have you talking afterwards. Zegler is enchanting as Maria. She has the perfect blend of innocence, optimism, and romanticism to make the role her own, which is saying something when you’re in the shadow of Natalie Wood. Faist absolutely pops off the screen as he manages the tricky balance of Riff’s pathos and aggression. While the rest of the Jets get to shine in “Gee, Officer Krupke”, it’s really Riff who’s the voice of the disaffected gang. And DeBose quickly establishes herself as a star with her bold, captivating performance that can wrap you around her finger in a song like “America” and then break your heart at the film’s climax.
Although the cast shines, West Side Story is also a reminder that Spielberg is untouchable when he’s at the top of his game. Spielberg has toyed with musical numbers before in films like 1941 and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but here he gets to go all in to dazzling effect. The way Spielberg moves the camera and his reliance on close-ups go a long way to making his version feel distinct from the 1961 version without taking anything away from Wise and Robbins’ picture. The interplay between Justin Peck’s choreography and Spielberg’s camera movements is nothing short of stunning, especially in scenes like the dance at the gym or “Cool”. While Spielberg has never dropped off, this is easily his best work since 2012’s Lincoln.
And between Lincoln and West Side Story, there’s a strong case for always partnering with Kushner. Kushner’s script is more overt in its social critiques but does so in ways that feel more modern and thoughtful. For example, in “Gee, Officer Krupke”, the 1961 version plays it more like the boys are just moving through different roles as they game the system, but here it plays out more like it’s the system that’s the problem. The film also overtly shows that Anybodys (Iris Menas) is a trans man, and simply embraces that as a truth. Kushner, in addition to including a hefty dose of Spanish dialogue, also moves more in line with the 1957 stage version so that “I Feel Pretty” comes after the brawl, adding a layer of tragedy that’s missing from the 1961 movie. Also, by staging “Cool” between Riff and Tony, there’s an entirely new dimension to their conflict that helps flesh out both characters. Finally, by updating the character of Doc into Valentina (Rita Moreno), you not only get to include the EGOT-winning legend with a link to the original (Moreno played Anita in 1961’s film), but it also adds a new facet to Tony’s character by showing their bond.
These are thoughtful tweaks rather than a massive overhaul. It’s clear that both Spielberg and Kushner have a deep and abiding respect for the material, and that they approach West Side Story not to “fix” it, but to provide minor updates that help further emphasize the strengths of Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins’ work. That doesn’t mean making the film “grittier” or “cooler” but embracing it as a classic musical and trusting that audiences will be swept up in it as they have been for decades. While I believe that modern audiences would also go for the 1961 version, Spielberg shows that he has something new to offer that’s just as worthwhile as the towering classic.
West Side Story opens in theaters on December 10th.