source: 20th Century Studios

It’s here! It’s finally here! The pure Spielberg musical is hitting the big screen after a long pandemic delay, and it’s only got to live up to one of the most beloved stage-to-screen adaptations of all time. 1961’s West Side Story is a near ubiquitous piece of pop culture, with its catchy songs, flashy dance numbers, and Shakespeare-inspired romance making it a sturdy crowd-pleaser that still overcomes its cringe-worthy production decisions (that brownface).

So, how do you take on a simple story that works? You tweak it, of course, but mostly you stick to the script, letting the bits that always shined stay bright and teasing out layers that had always been there. That’s mostly what screenwriter Tony Kushner does, keeping the doomed lovers blandly intact but putting a bit more effort into the events unfolding around them.

Steven Spielberg, meanwhile, takes every opportunity to indulge, a mode he’s been in for quite some time and that fits perfectly with the overblown emotions of a musical.

Their West Side Story comes in like a wrecking ball, immediately placing the fray between the teenage street gangs the Sharks and the Jets within a neighborhood being torn down around them. The government is replacing their homes with upscale developments, so no matter which group comes out on top of their little skirmish, they’re all going to lose.

This layer of futility has always been in West Side Story if you wanted to see it, but by making it obvious, Kushner and Spielberg give the story a dour undertone to distinguish it from the 1961 film and the numerous high school productions you’ve seen/been a part of over the years.

Other tweaks, like emphasizing the bigotry that underlies everything, gives it the veneer of a more progressive take on the story but ultimately muddles the emotional core of the movie. I mean, sure, give me an explicit backstory about the Jets as young men from troubled homes and who are facing down the aforementioned eviction from the only stability they know, but that doesn’t excuse their aggressive provocations and blind hatred, which the movie feels like it’s suggesting.

The hit of this miscalculation lands on the character Riff, leader of the Jets, who, despite a good performance from Mike Faist, is a loathsome young man in this iteration. When his inevitable fate befalls him, the relief of seeing him gone makes it hard to buy as the starting point for a tragic spiral. 

But this is West Side Story, so spiral it must. Spielberg is smart enough not to change the fundamentals of the story, and he’s a legend at taking sturdy stories and matching them with the exact visual panache it needs. You don’t need to see the shark much in Jaws. You do need to see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. And you definitely need that gory, nerve-jangling opening to Saving Private Ryan.

In West Side Story you need colors and fizzle and pop, and Spielberg goes all in on delivering moments that demand to be seen on the big screen. He unleashes the camera on their tiny section of New York City, weaving in and out of alleys, stores, and apartments to make their world seem as vibrant and worth fighting for as they all claim. Because of this, everything spinning around the doomed lovers Tony and María is much more intoxicating than the central romance (also Tony and María are boring characters, but we’ll get to that). 

The big numbers we all love are staged in ways that will floor you again, and even more basic movie tricks, like the flashy shot from the trailer showing the young men’s shadows crossing before their big fight, injects the perfect amount of grandeur into a story that thrives on seeming much bigger than it is.

And let’s not beat around the bush any longer: Ariana DeBose as Anita steals the show. As with so much of what works in this iteration of West Side Story, it’s a pre-existing strong point that leads to this success. Anita is a damn good role, taking a long, meaty arc from the girlfriend to a central figure in the looming tragedy, and DeBose proves capable of injecting the character with every ounce of intelligence, joy, grief, and anger that’s needed. It’s the role that Rita Moreno made iconic and rode straight to an Oscar (so much so that she had to return in a smaller role), and the fact that DeBose gives a performance worthy of the same journey is something of a minor miracle.

Lesser performances come from Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and María, but for entirely different reasons. Elgort is simply miscast, and arguably he doesn’t have the acting chops or presence to be a star in any movie. He’s always struck me as bland, and he’s bland here as Tony, which shoots in the foot not only the central romance but also the larger tragedies Spielberg is attempting to pin to a character that is little more than a lovesick puppy (plus there’s the creep factor of the allegations against him). Zegler has a great voice but is only an adequate performer, proving unable to lift the innocent character she plays into anything memorable.

And so you have a bland romance at the center of an often stunning film, which in and of itself is very West Side Story. I mean, what do you remember about the 1961 film? Personally, the romance is never what stuck with me. I remember the snapping and the swishing dresses and the energy of it. In these areas, the 2021 version flies just as high as its beloved predecessor, and that makes for a grand time at the movies.

Release: in theaters December 10th
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and Rita Moreno

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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