Steven Spielberg's first musical a bold, fresh, spectacular take on the 1961 classic 'West Side Story'

  • Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) fall for each other in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story."

    Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) fall for each other in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story." Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

 
 
Updated 12/9/2021 11:28 AM

"West Side Story" -- ★ ★ ★ ★

The master has remastered a masterpiece!

 

No movie could be a greater gamble for filmmaker Steven Spielberg than his joyously bold and revisionist take on the beloved 1961 musical classic "West Side Story."

That seminal production, directed by both Broadway legend Jerome Robbins and master-of-all-genres Robert Wise, shot on gritty New York locations instead of Hollywood soundstages, wound up becoming the highest grossing movie of 1961, winning 10 out of 11 Academy Award nominations.

Anita (Ariana DeBose) and her boyfriend Bernardo (David Alvarez) dance up a storm with friends in Steven Spielberg's remake of "West Side Story."
Anita (Ariana DeBose) and her boyfriend Bernardo (David Alvarez) dance up a storm with friends in Steven Spielberg's remake of "West Side Story." - Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Spielberg and his filmmaking team (including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a Columbia College Chicago grad) have created a stunning musical vehicle here.

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They keep the original chassis intact, but upgrade it with new fenders, roof and hood in the form of more multicultural sensitivity, greater character depth, sharper dialogue (added by Tony Kushner) and the ingenious rearrangement of familiar songs (by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim) in a different order to achieve an astonishing fresh relevance.

An extended opening segment instantly telegraphs that this will not be your grandparents' "West Side Story."

Giant cranes and wrecking balls stalk a desolate, bombed-out 1957 cityscape where two teen gangs called the Jets and Sharks (the former whites, the latter Puerto Ricans) engage in a futile turf war in the wake of oncoming gentrification.

It's a classic faceoff between two gang leaders Riff (Mike Faist), left, and Bernardo (David Alvarez) with former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) stuck in the middle during "West Side Story."
It's a classic faceoff between two gang leaders Riff (Mike Faist), left, and Bernardo (David Alvarez) with former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) stuck in the middle during "West Side Story." - Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Young gang members working out their feelings in dance take on a rawer, Gene Kelly-esque muscularity here, employing Justin Peck's energized choreography.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mike Faist plays Jets leader Riff with psychopathic squinting eyes, something like a dangerous city version of Scut Farkus from "A Christmas Story."

A decidedly older-looking David Alvarez plays Sharks leader Bernardo, a raging bull of a boxer who sees racism in all things around him, and he's rarely wrong.

The romantic leads, Maria and Tony, are a heart-melting couple played by charismatic, doe-eyed Rachel Zegler and a cool, reserved Ansel Elgort. (At least cool until it's time for him not to be cool, then, prepare to be wowed.)

In most integrated Hollywood musicals, characters would break into song without anyone around taking notice.

Not here.

Tony (Ansel Elgort) has his life changed by a chance meeting with a Puerto Rican teen in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story."
Tony (Ansel Elgort) has his life changed by a chance meeting with a Puerto Rican teen in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story." - Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

When Tony meets Maria at a high school dance (captured in a dreamy getaway under the bleachers), the instant mutual attraction kicks him into his upper range to sing "Maria," an enchanting performance pleasantly reacted to by young girls and older women in windows as he passes by. (Apparently, New York contains more Marias than Tony imagined.)

Make no mistake, this wild "West Side Story" improves upon its 1961 predecessor in every department.

Elgort's explosively intense Tony buries Richard Beymer's blah counterpart, just as a self-actualized Zegler outshines Natalie Wood's more passively innocent Maria. (Plus, Zegler didn't need Marni Nixon to sing her songs.)

Every scene, every song, every dance explodes with big and small enhancements that make this "West Side Story" uniquely Spielberg's.

"Cool," originally a cautionary tune from Ice of the Jets, becomes a struggle between Tony and Riff fighting for control of a loaded revolver that prominently figures into the story later.

Instead of a one-room faceoff between Puerto Rican men and women, the soaring "America" takes to the streets as a jubilant, all-community musical showstopper.

Valentina (Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 "West Side Story") owns the diner of her late husband, Doc, in Steven Spielberg's ambitious remake of the classic movie musical.
Valentina (Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 "West Side Story") owns the diner of her late husband, Doc, in Steven Spielberg's ambitious remake of the classic movie musical. - Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The most significant change offers 89-year-old Rita Moreno, who played the 1961 Anita, transforming the duet "Somewhere" into a heart-rending solo as the weary widow of the local diner's owner, Doc. (The charming Ariana DeBose plays Anita here.)

Many, many other clever touches and dramatic embellishments should remain for viewers to discover for themselves.

During the climax of "West Side Story" a terrible thought gripped me -- that this movie might end on a dark note much more faithful to its source material, William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," than the stage musical ever dared.

Braulio (Sebastian Serra), left, Flaco (Ricky Ubeda) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) strut their stuff as members of the Sharks in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story."
Braulio (Sebastian Serra), left, Flaco (Ricky Ubeda) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) strut their stuff as members of the Sharks in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story." - Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

That the movie suggested this as a distinct possibility illustrates how Spielberg has pulled off a grandiose, artistic coup.

He has taken one of the greatest and most well-known movie musicals in history and transformed it into something that feels new, spontaneous and real.

• • •

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Other: A 20th Century Studios/Walt Disney Company release. In theaters. Rated PG-13 for language, smoking, suggestive scenes, violence. 156 minutes

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