Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated ‘West Side Story’ remake is a triumph

He died on November 26 after an unparalleled career in musical theater launched when he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story”, the youngest member of a legendary creative team which included composer Leonard Bernstein, librettist Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Asked by Stephen Colbert in September about the new adaptation, Sondheim, 91, said: ‘Cinema musicals are hard to make, and this one – Spielberg and Kushner have really, really succeeded.’

He was right on both counts: “West Side Story” is an almost total triumph that captures the pulse of the musical in a way the Oscar winner The 1961 film version was unsuccessful. What an end-of-life gift for Sondheim and what an impressive achievement for Spielberg, now 74, directing the first musical of his own career. If it is possible to check a box with an exclamation mark, Spielberg does so here.

Its maximalist, on-the-go aesthetic turns out to be a perfect match for the material, producing a “West Side Story” that pulls you on a run of its pure kinetic momentum while leaving room for moments of rapture, stillness up close.

Kushner (“Angels in America”, “Lincoln”), for a long time the kind of writer that the French would call to hire, make sure that we don’t lose sight of the larger socio-political context in which all the chanting, dancing, fighting and fainting takes place. Bernstein’s score remains one of the glories of musical theater: all thunder and lightning an instant, all tender whispers the next. Justin Peck’s choreography retains the vibrancy and expressiveness of Robbins’ work while also taking advantage of the (literal) running room Spielberg offers actors.

Rachel Zegler as Maria in “West Side Story”. 20th century studios / Associated press

“West Side Story” is, of course, a reimagining of “Romeo and Juliet” set in late 1950s New York City, with the doomed Renaissance-era Verona lovers now Polish-American Tony ( Ansel Elgort) and Puerto Rican Maria (Rachel Zegler, delivering a breakout performance like a star).

In “Romeo and Juliet” Shakespeare wrote about “the spooky passage of their love marked by death”, and the passage of Tony and Maria is no less chilling. They get caught up in a battle between the Jets, a white street gang Tony previously led, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (an extremely charismatic David Alvarez).

Emphasizing that the Jets and Sharks are fighting for endangered territory – and that larger forces want them, and the communities they came from – “West Side Story” begins with a long panoramic view of the rubble buildings that were demolished to make way for what will be the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Throughout the film, Spielberg’s camera is a virtual character in its own right, whether it delves into the tightly choreographed maelstrom of the “Dance at the Gym” number or watches from above the dancers surging through the streets. from the Upper West Side in “America. “(If you’re comfortable in a theater, this is where the visual sweep of this film should be fully savored.) An aura of genuine danger hangs over this“ West Side Story. ”When the explosive rumble takes place between the Jets and the Sharks, the violence seems real and the stakes seem deadly.

Ariana DeBose as Anita in
Ariana DeBose as Anita in “West Side Story”. Photo by Niko Tavernise / Associated press

Spielberg’s film doesn’t quite resolve the tonal inconsistency of “West Side Story,” where for a moment the Jets fight their way through a witty satire of feel-good, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” then, later, these same young people commit a horrible act. Elgort, playing Tony, looks a bit bland. Kushner gave the character a new backstory – he just got out of jail for almost beating a man to death – but like with pretty much every Tony I’ve ever seen, Elgort just isn’t convincing as a that no one tough enough to have commanded a street gang; Mike Faist, as Riff, is much more convincing on this point.

“West Side Story” occupies a huge but contested place in the canon of musical theater. Created by four white men, it has long been criticized for its lack of cultural authenticity, with its portrayals of Puerto Rican characters seen as barely drawn stereotypes. There is a case to be made – and some are currently doing it fervently – that the job of correcting these shortcomings does not properly belong to two other white men.

Spielberg and Kushner took this job seriously, in terms of the cast, story, and presentation. Unlike Natalie Wood, who played Maria in the 1961 film, Zegler is Latina. There is a substantial amount of Spanish dialogue in the new film and, most importantly, no subtitles – ie no guesswork on who this “West Side Story” is for. More weight is given to the relationship between Bernardo and Anita (a sensational Ariana DeBose). Musicals often feature a secondary romance, but this is by no means secondary.

Rita Moreno and Ansel Elgort in
Rita Moreno and Ansel Elgort in “West Side Story”. 20th century studios / Associated press

The owner of the pharmacy where Tony works, named Doc in the original, is now a Puerto Rican widow named Valentina, played by the incomparable Rita Moreno, who turns 90 on Saturday. (Moreno played Anita in the 1961 film and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.) Here it’s Valentina, rather than Tony and Maria, singing “Somewhere”. Here, this ballad of nostalgia expands to encompass more than the dream duo of two young lovers. When Moreno – combining haunting elegiac quality with the tragic wisdom of age – sings “There is a place for us / Somewhere a place for us”, she sings about all of us.

Elgort’s ardor in love scenes has nothing to envy that of the luminous Zegler. At only 20 years old, she is the soul of this “West Side Story”, perhaps the most moving Maria I have ever seen, both in her joy and eventual sorrow. Zegler’s face frequently lights up with a youthful discovery; whatever emotion this Maria feels, she seems to be experiencing it for the first time.

As she performs a song that is all about feelings, “I Feel Pretty,” Zegler reports that this new feeling for Maria signals not only vanity, but a step back with no return to adulthood. Maria was infantilized by the overprotective Bernardo, but in Zegler’s hands, the song is inscribed as a provocative declaration of independence.

This new “West Side Story” can be seen in a similar light. There have been countless iterations of this masterpiece (it was relaunched on Broadway just last year), but Spielberg and Kushner let us see it with new eyes. Like the man said, they really, really nailed it.



Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner; based on the original book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. With Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Mike Faist, Brian D’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andres Rivera, Iris Menas. In Boston theaters, in the suburbs. 156 min. PG-13 (some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, smoking)

Don Aucoin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @GlobeAucoin.

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