With West Side Story, a lavish and dynamically orchestrated new adaptation of the timeless musical, Steven Spielberg finally unleashes his inner theater kid—the song and dance enthusiast who’s been there from the start, tapping his toes behind the scenes of a whole line of extravagant blockbusters. Hasn’t there always been something rather musical about Spielberg’s camera? Even in a dry newspaper procedural, it glides and pirouettes. And only Hollywood’s eternal Peter Pan could give rampaging reptiles an almost balletic grace. To watch his nimble event movies is to see the hint—the glorious shadow play—of an MGM spectacle he’s had in him all this time. It’s thrilling to watch him finally realize that ambition.
On the one hand, West Side Story seems like a safe choice for the director’s first official foray into the genre. Jerome Robbins’ rousing stage show, first performed in 1957, remains a towering popular classic of the medium; the songs, courtesy of Leonard Bernstein and the late lyricist Stephen Sondheim, are so beloved by so many that it would be almost impossible not to wring joy from them. Yet in offering his own take on this Broadway staple, Spielberg is also competing with our memories of a quintessential screen version: the epically mounted 1961 adaptation, which swept the Oscars and has conquered hearts for decades. Even for Hollywood’s premier dreamweaver, the man behind E.T. and Jaws and Jurassic Park, that’s a tall order.
Spielberg knows better than to reinvent the show. His West Side Story boasts no new songs and only a couple small tweaks to the blueprint of its mythic romance, which transports Romeo & Juliet to the streets of Upper West Side New York circa the 1950s. Here, reformed teenage hoodlum Tony (Ansel Elgort), one-time leader of The Jets, falls in love at first sight with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of sworn rival Bernardo (David Alvarez), who’s head of the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks. Those who know the tragic trajectory of the story will nod along to every beat.
Yet Spielberg grabs us immediately; even if you’ve memorized West Side Story, you’ve never seen it through his eyes. The film opens with a sweeping overhead survey of the NYC neighborhood where its plot unfolds, as construction crews tear down old buildings to make room for new ones. Elegantly, persuasively, he foregrounds the forces of gentrification that loom over both sides of a pointless adolescent turf war. The Jets and Sharks are at each other’s throats for territory, but they can’t see that they’re both being muscled out of a city—and maybe a country—that views all of them as basically vermin. Later, Spielberg will underline the shared lot of these warring factions with a striking overhead shot of their shadows converging during a confrontation, merging into one amorphous silhouette of impending calamity.
Working from a new adaptation by playwright Tony Kushner, who punches up the dialogue between the big numbers, Spielberg revels in the opportunity to revive the glamour of a bygone era of Hollywood musicals, all while making some crucial, thoughtful upgrades. Gone, of course, is the whitewashing of the ’61 version. Here, the Puerto Rican characters are all portrayed by Latinx actors. The film goes further in its stabs at cultural authenticity by handing them a flowing mix of English and Spanish dialogue; Spielberg declines to subtitle the latter, reasoning perhaps that audiences who don’t speak both languages will be able to follow the emotional logic of any scene. It’s a bold and pointed choice for a big Hollywood movie—the kind only a filmmaker with Spielberg’s unlimited clout and industry capital could insist upon.
The elephant in the room is West Side Story’s leading man. Last summer, Elgort was accused of sexually assaulting a minor—a scandal that casts an uncomfortable shadow over the puppy-love courtship of the film, which finished shooting before the accusations broke. Looking beyond that controversy, Elgort may be the movie-star weak link in a cast of mostly upstarts and unknowns. He does bring a certain appropriately moody, simmering attitude to the role; this is the rare incarnation of Tony that actually convinces as someone with a violent past. But he never conveys the full breadth of the character’s blooming infatuation. From his lips, “Maria” is merely a gorgeous earworm, not the expressive Broadway ballad to beat them all.
The rest of the cast picks up the slack, though. Zegler, a YouTube celebrity making her big-screen debut, is radiantly innocent—in her starry-eyed naivete, we can see glimmers of the show’s tragic upshot, a vision of children rushing too fast out of childhood. Ariana DeBose offers a rainbow of conflicting emotions as Sharks moll Anita, her brassy confidence shattering into heartbreak. The performance suffers only in comparison to the turn of her predecessor in the same role, Rita Moreno, who brings a wearied wisdom to this new version in the newly created part of Tony’s shopkeeper boss and mentor. Best in show might be Broadway star Mike Faist as Jets honcho Riff—an electrifying rendition of sarcastic teenage bravado masking desperation.
Of course, the real star here is the staging, a balm for an age of lead-footed Broadway translations. Spielberg races around his dancers, mirroring the physicality of Justin Peck’s choreography through the ecstatic slide and swing of his craft. Some numbers use signature virtuosic long takes to privilege a clear vantage on the spectacle, while others miraculously crosscut across time and space without slicing the action into ribbons. He films portions of “Tonight” through the bars of a fire escape, emphasizing the barriers between Tony and Maria. “Cool,” maybe the most radically reconceived set piece, becomes a game of keep away with a loaded gun. Not every choice tops the original’s: Moving the central lovers’ first meeting behind the gym bleachers is no patch on how Robert Wise eccentrically stopped time on the dancefloor. But even here, you can admire the sparkle of Janusz Kamiński’s typically luminous lensing—the brilliant glimmers of light cutting through the cracks in the bleachers.
Spielberg knows, too, not to mess with the songs. There is no improving upon this soundtrack—the undiminished chills provoked by some of Broadway’s greatest showtunes. Is there a bum note among them? Just to hear these rousing anthems on the big screen again is a pleasure that doesn’t need complicating. Still, you can hear how they might resonate with Spielberg. Doesn’t the ambivalence of “America,” a hilarious duet on the promise and the lie of the Land Of Opportunity, align rather neatly with his ongoing investigation of national values and virtues? For all its dreamy night-out escapism, West Side Story is a perfect choice for an artist whose status as “America’s hitmaker” has always been more complicated than the twinkly surfaces of his crowd-pleasers might suggest.
What he’s ultimately delivered is a reverently faithful production, putting on West Side Story with panache and a sensibility that teeters, impressively, between classical and modern. He’s made the show his own while staying true to its rich emotional palette, its joy and melancholy; this is still the story, big as legend, of bright young dreamers caught in a preordained spiral of prejudice and loss. Can it compete with the last screen version? Maybe not—that adaptation, for all its outdated qualities, has earned its eternal grip on the imaginations of moviegoers. But there’s room for another, especially one so respectful of what makes the material sing, and so useful as a platform for a great director looking to finally go full Minnelli.