So, it would appear one shouldn’t underestimate Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. That was my bad, guys. The remake of West Side Story that I’d honestly kind of been dreading since it was announced, and didn’t want to see, turned out to be one of the year’s very best films. It also improves on the original in some very important ways, and ultimately I definitely see myself watching this version of West Side Story more in the future.
In 1957 New York, Lincoln Center and luxury condos are being built on the west side of New York City, soon to displace many currently living there. There’s a turf war looming between rival street gangs, the Jets – the neighborhood’s Polish, Italian and Irish bad kids, led by charismatic leader Riff (Mike Faist) and the newer-in-town Puerto Rican Sharks, led by the charismatic leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). Meanwhile, the Polish Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Colombian Maria (Rachel Zegler) fall quickly, helplessly, devastatingly in love amidst this doomed backdrop.
It may be a waste of time to even explain the plot of West Side Story, since this saga is one of the most iconic in film, especially one of the most iconic film musicals, one of the few to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. West Side Story has never been my favorite stage musical or my favorite musical movie, but it’s a classic that has earned its place in history. And Steven Spielberg’s remake is somehow better in just about every way. I’m as surprised as you are.
It’s always great in a musical when there’s no weak link in the cast and there’s nobody not totally bringing it here. This is Rachel Zegler’s first film ever, and she’s a total star. She’s got the voice of an angel, and she’s never not giving a completely assured and confident performance. She holds this entire thing together beautifully. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Her chemistry with Ansel Elgort totally surpasses Natalie Wood’s and Richard Beymer’s. As for Elgort, this is the best performance I’ve seen from him and yet I can think of about 15 Broadway guys who would’ve done this better. But I had no idea he could sing (or dance!) like that, so it’s fine. He’s certainly got more charisma than Richard Beymer.
The Broadway vets are, as usual, the MVPs. I’m going to start with Ariana DeBose, who you all should know by now. After her scene-stealing role in last year’s The Prom and her work in Hamilton and Broadway’s Donna Summer Musical, I can’t believe people are still figuring out who she is, but she’s a revelation in every way, and I think she’s even better than Rita Moreno in the original film. Also, the staging of Anita’s signature number America just works a lot better here, it’s staged in a more grand, fantastical way, and now it also takes place during the daytime! Which makes more of a difference than you would think.
Mike Faist, who originated roles in Newsies and Dear Evan Hansen (where I met him and where he autographed my Playbill afterward, not to brag) seems right at home in West Side Story. He has this very specific look about him that genuinely makes him look like he existed in the 1950s. Also he’s an incredible singer and dancer. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him, he’s always surprising you and giving way more than I would think is necessary to the role of Riff. In fact I can’t believe I’m saying Riff is a highlight in any production of West Side Story, but here we are.
David Alvarez, a Tony winner for the Billy Elliot musical, is also really terrific as Bernardo. He’s equal parts menacing and swagger, and he’s an absolutely outstanding dancer. Rita Moreno also returns, in a new role as Valentina, Doc’s widow who is now running his drugstore that serves as neutral ground between the Jets and the Sharks. She brings a warm, specific, loving presence to this role, and in one of the most notable changes from the original productions, this character gets one of the big songs. I’m not a fan of the staging of this number, but watching Rita Moreno sing it almost immediately made me start sobbing.
Spielberg’s first musical, in his long, illustrious career, gives you the impression he’s done this kind of thing a hundred times before. Certain sequences feel very similar to the original, with a more lush, detailed color palette, and other scenes feel completely unique in a way that’s absolutely thrilling. This film is so good, it feels like Spielberg’s almost achieved the impossible. Spielberg’s usual DP Janusz Kamiński shot this, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that every frame in this movie looks like it could be hung in a museum. The dance numbers are shot correctly, with lots of wide shots of the ensembles dancing, and not a lot of cutting, which ruins big dance numbers in so many musicals. Also, the dance-fighting never seems silly in the ways it could. The number Cool, a dance-fighting sequence between the Jets and Sharks, has the menace and brooding it needs to, and yet it’s also a completely thrilling musical number. And the infamous rumble is staged in an incredibly cinematic way that took my breath away.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) feels like it was made in 1958 and 2021, somehow simultaneously. It’s a technical marvel with every precise detail executed perfectly and is also a shockingly gorgeous old-fashioned stunner, whose message couldn’t be more welcome and necessary in 2021. It’s a love letter to the original musical and yet also a correction of the parts that haven’t aged well. I watched the original West Side Story in my American Music and Theatre classes in college, and I can’t imagine a world where this film won’t be regarded in the same level. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a thrilling musical spectacle you absolutely need to see on the big screen. This won’t be the same at home. It’s essential viewing and I literally can’t believe I’m saying this.