Whistles on a black screen, echoing through the void. We don’t need to see to know what it is; we’ve heard it before. It’s the faint calls of juvenile delinquents, a rag-tag group of beat-up and forgotten white trash desperately clinging to their way of life on New York’s West Side. It’s déjá vu, but only for a moment. From then on, there’s no mistaking 2021’s West Side Story for its sixty-year-old predecessor… or any other iteration of the original stage musical. From every choreographed step to the searing lens flares, this version of the beloved classic takes a familiar narrative and adds some sugar and spice – and boy, does it come out nice. As it turns out, director Steven Spielberg and West Side Story are a match made in heaven.
Since its initial debut in the summer of 1957, West Side Story has been a major piece of musical theatre history. With catchy compositions penned by maestro Leonard Bernstein, now-iconic lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a unique performative language by choreographer Jerome Robbins, the show has spent over 60 years being regarded as one of the definitive American theatrical works, receiving a number of revivals and adaptations. At this point, it’s tradition; West Side Story itself is a sort-of reimagining, taking more than a few notes from Shakespeare’s own tale of teenaged star-crossed lovers. From the Oscar-winning 1961 film adaptation to the 2020 Broadway revival, it’s a piece that has grown and evolved over the decades – a sprawling legacy to which 2021’s rendition ambitiously sought to add.
Bringing on Pulitzer-winning collaborator Tony Kushner as the film’s screenwriter, Spielberg and company take the deeply human story of the Jets and the Sharks, Anita and Bernardo, Maria and Tony, and make it their own. More deeply reflective of the story’s events and their contexts, this version of West Side Story is topical and timely but still reverent to the original. With countless distinctive textual and technical flourishes that make it stand out among the crowd, this iteration is a staggering achievement in musical filmmaking.
Despite being his first feature-long take on the musical genre, West Side Story is Spielberg at his best and brightest. Even for the man behind E.T. and the like, this holds a certain uniqueness among his filmography, for genuine conviction and passion pervade every moment on screen. The love and joy behind each frame is infectiously uplifting, mixing with Spielberg’s explosively heartfelt kinetic style to create a cinematic experience that will leave you craving more.
It’s no secret that Spielberg is known for his dynamic blocking, but this movie takes that dial and cranks it all the way up and then some. Characters whisk around apartment buildings, street corners, and riverside piers with purpose and precision, perfectly mending the seam between fantasy and reality. This ever-moving world is expertly translated to the screen by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, rendering the film in beautiful cinemascope.
Particularly in the dance sequences designed by the Tony award-winning choreographer Justin Peck, Spielberg somehow consistently nails it every time, managing to expertly direct the audience’s gaze while capturing the appropriate energy and emotions of the scene. Broad sweeping movements of the camera work in perfect harmony with the actors, catching things like a dress’s flared flounce twirling in such a way that feels impossibly effortless – a dazzling display of cinematic prowess.
Kushner’s script also allows for more visually dynamic sequences than what is realistically possible on-stage by jumping between settings and times during musical numbers. Songs like “Cool” are recontextualized to more directly relate to immediate character conflicts, imbuing them with stronger plot motivation as mediums for active presentation. Aided by Spielberg’s innate musicality of movement, the film flows like an exciting melody, ebbing and flowing from scene to scene. From start to finish, West Side Story is a cascading onslaught of mouth-watering visuals: definitive proof that the seventy-four-year-old auteur still has it. There’s no doubt that this will be the go-to subject of study for all movie musical directors moving forward.
Essential to the film’s identity, New York is a character unto itself in this version of West Side Story. Right from its opening, the construction site grime of the soon-to-be Lincoln Center infuses the entire film with a sense of dread and bleakness – a cityscape plagued with rubble and debris feels closer to what you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic dystopia than a high-spirited musical. Here, it’s the mark of urban development and, more importantly, the future; the threat of eviction and loss of home makes for greater inherent turmoil beneath even the racial tensions between the rival gangs. It’s a motif that extends beyond the oppressive feelings of steel beams and brick walls, reinforced by stylized lighting that evokes the gritty textures of a lived-in city. It’s a visual representation of the threats to the characters’ ways of life, all of them vulnerable under the shadow of the looming wrecking ball.
Production designer Adam Stockhausen isn’t all doom and gloom though. His recreation of 1950s New York City is detailed and nuanced, finding warmth and intimacy in even unlikely places. Splashes of color bring life to Anita’s workspace in her apartment, to the clothesline-filled alleyways between the mid-rise apartment buildings, and to the shelved interior of Doc’s Pharmacy (which is reimagined as belonging to Valentina, Doc’s widow played by West Side Story alum Rita Moreno). Of course, as one might expect, “America” is the pinnacle of the film’s jubilant vibrance, playing with a rich location and culture.
It helps, too, that the cast looks the part; everyone here looks like they belong in a golden age Hollywood musical with faces that look chiseled to star-studded perfection. For such a large cast, there’s an incredible breadth of talent among them. With Tony Kusher’s updated script allowing for more comprehensive characterization than the 1961 film, each of the many individual members of the ensemble feels well-realized and well-utilized. Adding much more emphasis to the themes of immigration, assimilation, and racism also gives these actors time to show off their acting chops.
Ariana DeBose, in particular, gives a standout performance as Anita opposite David Alvarez as her boyfriend Bernardo. The film features many of its Puerto Rican characters switching between English and Spanish to demonstrate the lifestyles of immigrants. Controversially, these scenes are not subtitled, instead relying on the talented body-acting and contextual clues to guide English-speaking audiences through a Spanish-spoken scene. DeBose and Alvarez elevate this bilingual presentation, emphasizing key emotional beats and proving themselves as next-level performers. The film’s respect for the Spanish language and those who speak it is abundantly clear during these scenes, and it is a testament to its main cast that the film can afford to allow entire scenes to hinge upon non-captioned foreign language performances.
At the center of West Side Story, Rachel Zegler’s acting debut as Maria is far from showy, but it exudes the perfect amount of innocence and optimism. Where she remains more reserved in her mannerisms she makes up for with vocal presence; her light and smooth timbre clearly floats atop the instrumental mixes and confidently soars even when rapidly moving through different vocal registers. While the instrumentals taking such a backseat to the singing does leave a bit of the visceral feeling of other iterations on the mixing room floor, it does serve to keep things more personal.
Zegler’s comically tall co-lead, Ansel Elgort, delivers a decent vocal performance, even if he lacks some of his love interest’s grace when entering the upper register. What’s more frustrating, however, is his lack of defined personality. His performance and general characterization are good but lack any kind of stylistic punch. In other versions of West Side Story, Tony is defined by his sincere heart and clear youthfulness. Here, he comes off more relaxed with an air of calculated-if-awkward swagger, which (in addition to the height difference) makes for some somewhat uncomfortable, if sparse, moments between him and the younger, more naive Maria.
This feeling is only compounded by the reality of Ansel Elgort’s continued involvement with the project in spite of outstanding allegations of grooming underage fans. His performance is far from the most memorable in the film, though his largest stain on it is his very presence. It’s hard to wholeheartedly support a film that harbors even one cast member with such an egregious reputation.
While more reflective of her symbolic presence in the film, Rita Moreno as Valentina deserves recognition as well; her emotional rendition of “Somewhere” adds a touch of mature, wistful longing to a film that spends a lot of time dwelling in the muddiness of youthful folly and outright bigotry. There’s a clear intertextual connection between her song and the ‘61 film but it’s just vague enough not to distract. Moreno was also an executive producer on this adaptation – no doubt wanting to help usher in the next generation of West Side performers.
With a reputation as big as Spielberg’s, it’s no surprise that West Side Story is as good as it is. While it’s a shame that he chose to forego the overture and intermission so intertwined with the story, this version of West Side Story is leaps and bounds above the original – in terms of not only craft but representation. Seeing actors bring their real lived-in experience to inform their characters gives this movie authenticity and importance, and there’s no better crew to be had behind the camera than one led by the one and only Steven Spielberg.
And if this was only Spielberg’s first go at directing a musical, the world is not ready for his second… and probably never will be.