No more brownface or dancing mannequins
Only the most successful filmmaker in the world would have the audacity to remake a phenomenally successful movie. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, his big-cajones film version of the Broadway show that begat the blockbuster Oscar-winning movie musical, is one of the few remakes that actually feels like a rejuvenation and a revivification. Or, frankly, a reclamation.
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Robert Wise’s “oh-so-pretty” Best Picture winner was a shiny adaptation of the venerable stage show in which Arthur Laurents transposed Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to midcentury Gotham street gangs on the Upper West Side. The 1957 musical was a modest hit, running until 1959 and winning a pair of Tonys in lesser categories (Best Choreographer, Best Scenic Designer), while the 1961 big-screen behemoth outgrossed every other movie that year and nabbed 10 Academy Awards.
WEST SIDE STORY ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler
Running time: 156 mins
I personally never enjoyed the material, outside of Leonard Bernstein’s earworm music and Steven Sondheim’s too-clever-wordplay lyrics. The film always felt ponderous, indulgent and antiseptic, with hokey camera effects, broad performances, and balletic “tough” guys breaking into jarringly graceful pirouettes. Jerome Robbins’ bedazzled dance numbers just defuse the threat: the on-screen delinquency looked about as harmless as a malt shake. Plus, the movie boasts the not-aged-well lunacy of brownface, casting Russian-American starlet Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican girl who chews her dialogue with a clipped accent.
Spielberg astonishingly treads lightly and stomps confidently in equal measure, honoring but never venerating the stage production and the original film. Both of their influences loom large, but the legendary director, bringing some well-earned stature himself, goes toe-to-toe and holds his own. What’s remarkable is that the filmmaker’s absolute self-confidence seems well-tempered with humility. He clearly wants to do justice to a cultural landmark, but he also brings a vision that truly enhances the experience with surgical precision.
His starling innovation: set the story on urban rubble. Lincoln Center was never mentioned in the original show or film, but here Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner give it pride of place from the very first frame. It’s Robert Moses’ urban-renewal philosophy of razing tenements to make way for an unspoken future of millionaires living in multi-million-dollar high rises. Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) sneers that prescient prediction: “Beautiful apartments with Puerto Rican doorman to carry you trash away,” he says to the delinquent teens that he calls “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians.”
This isn’t just white nativist Jets and the Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks quarreling over turf rights. This is existential warfare. Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist) has seen his entire life condemned and demolished. Dust is everywhere. Nothing is stable. And now he clings to the Jets with tribal vigor, because that’s all he can count on. “My guys,” he says.” Who are just like me.”
His best friend and charter Jet, Tony (Ansel Elgort), is now, in this retelling, an ex-con who just finished serving a year upstate in an Ossining prison for almost killing a rival gang member during a past rumble. It was a brush-with-the-brink moment that scared him straight. “I wanna be unlike what I was,” he says to Riff, seemingly renouncing the Jets for a squeaky-clean life of honest work at Doc’s Druggist—now owned by Doc’s widow Valentina (West Side Story O.G. Rita Moreno, in an inspired and essential bit of casting). She’s proof that Puerto Ricans can assimilate and build a life in the United States. She also took in Tony, giving him room and board along with acting as a surrogate parent. It’s a new role that makes the film’s racial divide even more bittersweet.
Tony understands Riff’s anguish, so he violates his parole officer and goes to a school dance in an effort to defuse tensions between the Jets and the Sharks. And, of course, he meets his poetic doom in the form of star-crossed-lover Maria (Rachel Zegler).
Speaking of the dance, Spielberg gives pride of place there and throughout to a minor character: Anybodys, the girl with tomboy posturing who’s eager to be a Jet. In this retelling, the bit part is gender-fluid (and played by non-binary actor Iris Menas). The story’s overarching racial tension now gets echoed in sexual prejudices that, yes, are trending in 2021 but have always been part of society. It’s a smart, sly addition.
Another bold choice: no subtitles for any of the Spanish dialogue. Maria and her hothead brother, Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), along with his dynamite girlfriend Anita (muy caliente Ariana DeBose), have long bilingual scenes. You get the gist even if you’re not fluent. Which of course is the point: universal emotions transcend language. We can all understand each other if we just make the effort.
But don’t think Spielberg wants his film to spark a kumbaya moment. Sure, he’s a corny storyteller, and West Side Story is pretty corny stuff. But, believe it or not, he adds grit. Kushner’s script restores the original phrasing of Tony and Riff’s “sperm to worm” loyalty pledge, and it’s apt: these people really do fuck and kill. They’ve got a pulse, they sweat, and they’re dangerous. Just look at the infamous but previously defanged scene when the Jets almost sexually assault Antia in Doc’s—now-harrowing violence that, here, Valentina disrupts. “I have watched you grow up, and you have grown up to be rapists,” she seethes. There’s a newly palpable anger that makes the film’s moments of joy soar even higher and feel even more fleeting. “I can kill now, because I hate now,” says Maria at the end. It’s heartbreaking.
Canniest decision, subtle but effective, is the film’s costume design. Jets are constantly in shades of blue, while the Sharks are variations on red. When they clash—especially busting heads in a salt shed—the red-white-and-blue color palette is unmistakable. An inglorious Old Glory. “We’re all Americans, right?” says the school principal. It’s a good question.