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West Side Story (2021)::rating::4.5::rating::4.5

As a lifelong Spielberg aficionado, I’m honestly a little shocked it’s taken him this long to tackle a musical.  His movies have always relied on elaborate, ambitious shots that are both sweepingly cinematic and mathematically precise expressions of visual lyricism.  And that’s to say nothing of John Williams’ booming motifs bursting from the speakers.  So, the magic of Broadway would seem to be a natural fit for Spielberg’s showy stylistic vision.

What’s surprising, however, is that Spielberg would reach all the way back to a warhorse like West Side Story for his first foray.  After all, Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation swept the Academy Awards, including nods for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno).  For decades, that version has been held as definitive, which usually translates as “untouchable.”  Spielberg has long expressed a desire to shoot a musical, but when I heard he was reworking this particular epic, I was gobsmacked:  Was this craziness, laziness, or just some late-career hubris?

Turns out, it’s none of the above.  You see, a known commodity like West Side Story actually gives Spielberg the chance to strip the original work down to the chassis and rebuild it with his own brilliant flourishes.  Even better, he also gets to smooth out the earlier film’s flaws, especially its many sociocultural missteps.  That means this Story represents a rare cinematic achievement:  Spielberg takes an all-time classic, and ends up improving on it.

The plot adheres closely to the Broadway version (music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, respectively), and loosely to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet before it.  Spielberg opens the film by panning across a jungle of concrete debris, before pulling back to reveal the battered remnants of Manhattan’s West Side.  With its dusty husks of tenements and storefronts, San Juan Hill looks like a lot like postwar Berlin.  As the excavators and dozers slowly pick the landscape clean, it’s clear that this area will soon have to make way for the relentless pace of progress.

This beautiful mess makes the perfect battleground for the Jets and the Sharks, rival gangs who claim what’s left of the neighborhood as their own.  The Jets, composed of scruffy white kids, want to brawl with the Sharks, who are proud Puerto Ricans.  The gangs plan to meet at an organized dance, and throw down sometime afterward.  Riff (Mike Faist), the head of the Jets, seeks out his old buddy Tony (Ansel Elgort) to help with the rumble.  Tony’s out on parole and running out of second chances, so he refuses.

Meanwhile, the Sharks ready themselves for an eventful night.  Leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) is smart, hot-tempered, and eager to prove himself.  His girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) just wants some lively dancing, while his baby sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) nervously awaits her first taste of adulthood.

Even if most of this sounds new, you can probably guess where it goes from here:  Tony suppresses his instincts and shows up at the dance, and it’s over the minute he and Maria lock eyes.  Her date Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) might as well become invisible.  Both gangs erupt in pimply, teenage fury, but there’s just no stopping destiny.  And, of course, the outsized musical numbers that come with it.

Before I go any further, let me offer a little unvarnished honesty:  I’ve never loved the 1961 adaptation of West Side Story.  Of course, I can respect its tremendous legacy, plus the incredible bar it raised for an entire decade of musicals.  My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! owe something to trends set by the Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins version of Story.  At the same time, the casting of the two leads always bugged me.  Natalie Wood was a talented, charismatic, and beautiful actress, but she wasn’t a singer.  (Marni Nixon subbed as Maria’s singing voice.)  Even worse, she wasn’t even close to Puerto Rican.  Richard Beymer’s casting as Tony was also off the mark. (Jimmy Bryant provided his vocals.)  Finally, Wood and Beymer just didn’t work as a star-crossed couple, which causes an otherwise brilliant film to revolve around an emotionally inert center.

Now that I’ve said my piece, let’s continue:  As Tony and Maria, Elgort and Zegler absolutely kill it.  Both bring an instant fire to this ill-fated romance, adding to the film’s dramatic heft and intensity.  Their songs often soar to the rafters; Zegler, in particular, has a phenomenal range.  Her voice shimmers with a seamless blend of power and warmth.  When it comes to the doomed lovers, this version is an instant upgrade.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner make a few more changes to the Story formula, and they range from minor tweaks to things long overdue.  For starters, all the Puerto Rican characters are played by Latinx actors, a move that’s as smart as it should’ve been obvious.  The character of Anybodys (iris menas) has been officially rendered into a trans man, and he’s even given a poignant beat at the close of the film.  Spielberg and Kushner also work up something special for Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar as Anita in the 1961 adaptation.  She plays a new character named Valentina, a widow who runs her late husband’s general store.  Valentina acts as a liaison to both factions, and provides a grandmotherly presence to Tony.  Moreno makes this much more than a glorified cameo, and she delivers a welcome glimpse of vintage Hollywood.  Finally, the film features a few small adjustments to the music–“Boy” is now sung by Tony, instead of Riff, for example–but everything clicks perfectly.

West Side Story combines the things you didn’t know you needed with every reason you’d want to see it the first place.  Sondheim’s songs are still glorious, and they’re presented with reverence and Oscar-worthy skill.  Spielberg has always felt more like maestro than auteur, and his unique beauty forms a perfect symbiosis with this vibrant material.  His frequent collaborators all hit it out of park, as well:  Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar, and costume designer Paul Tazewell deserve special mention.  They all combine to deliver the best West Side Story yet, and one of the best films of 2021.

156 min.  PG-13.  In theaters.  On Disney+ and HBOMax beginning March 2nd.

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