Steven Spielberg (1941, Always) has always talked about making a musical. From the dance intro of Temple of Doom to the cacophony of farting corgis in The BFG, Spielberg wears his love of the stage on his sleeve. A couple years ago, after his plans for a fifth Indiana Jones came apart, he set out to remake one of the greatest musicals of all time to finally scratch that itch. And you’ll never believe it – the man behind Jaws and Jurassic Park makes a great picture! You’d be surprised what actually focusing on the dancing instead of cutting like mad can do for a musical, which has been an issue with recent attempts like In the Heights and Cats. This is not the only issue with Cats, but I digress.
Singing! Dancing! Dresses! Gangs! Knives! Balconies! It’s all here. West Side Story (2021) is not a remake of the 1961 Best Picture winner, but a new adaptation of the 1957 stage musical. This is splitting hairs a bit, but I get it. Musicals get revivals all the time, why not give this one another go? Frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner updates the story here and there, but there’s no need to change what works. He does move one sequence in order to make it totally devastating and by God, it works. The most obvious evolution is in the casting – no brownface to be found here. The original Anita (Rita Moreno) also occupies a new role, Valentina, the widow of store proprietor Doc who takes Tony (Ansel Elgort) under her wing when he gets out of juvie. There’s also nonbinary actor Iris Menas as Anybodys, giving the role more depth than just “tomboy.” Otherwise, the story plays out quite the same, for better and for worse.
There doesn’t seem an urgent need to recap the plot of West Side Story. Tony and Maria, Riff and Bernardo, Romeo and Juliet, Jets, Sharks, a rumble. Odds are you’ve seen the film or a high school performance. The story isn’t really the point. What matters, as I said earlier, is the dancing. And boy, does this movie have some dancing. From the dirty Jets crawling out of rubble in the prologue to the mambo at the gym dance, to the soaring “America” sequence, there’s never a moment where you’re not as spellbound as you would be if you were seeing this on stage. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński shot the film like the wizard he is. I’m not sure how else to describe it, but some sequences look as though they were shot in miniature, on tiny stages designed to best show off everyone’s fancy footwork. Please let me know if you understand what I mean; it’s possible I just don’t understand what lenses they used.
Ansel Elgort is a drag as Tony, which most of us expected. Fortunately, Tony is a drip and no one cares about him except Maria (Rachel Zegler). Zegler seems like a star from the first moment we see her on the fire escape. She has a powerful soprano best-suited for songs like “Tonight, Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty”. Of course, the most compelling roles belong to Riff (Mike Faist), Anita (Ariana DeBose), and Bernardo (David Alvarez). Each puts in 110% effort, bringing life to each character in unexpected ways. Faist makes Riff deeply sympathetic and sad, while reminding you he is also a violent bigot. Anita loves Bernardo, but is unwilling to give up the freedoms she has found in her new home. Bernardo, simply put, is extremely hot. His protectiveness never crosses over into cartoonishness, and it’s easy to understand his frustrations with the police. These three are worth the price of admission alone.
When things get real at the film’s climax, everyone does stop dancing, which is a problem. The final scene is set on a dark empty street with none of the bombast that had colored the film to that point. While it works dramatically, I wish there had been a way to bring just a little bit of that dancing back before the curtain dropped. But overall, if you like West Side Story, you can rest assured Spielberg didn’t “ruin” it. The film just has a mark of quality to it I’ve felt has been lacking from recent studio releases. The further I get from seeing it, the more impressed I’ve become. I did also feel this way about Cats, but for slightly different reasons.
West Side Story
dir. Steven Spielberg
In theaters everywhere Friday 12/10
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