Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is as joyous as a movie musical can get. It’s a film that aims high and dreams big, and manages to fire on all cylinders. This is Spielberg’s first film since Ready Player One, and by comparison it’s drastically different. In fact, it’s drastically different because this is one of those rare genres that Spielberg, in his overly impressive resume of mostly hits, hasn’t dabbled with. Yet a lighter Spielberg film has a great energy to it, and energy is what’s necessary to making West Side Story sing. And sing it does.
I’m a true Spielberg believer, and a good chunk of his films (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, etc) rank among my favorites. That being said, even I had my doubts. The film was delayed pretty much exactly a year due to COVID-19, and it not only lacked a festival release but also much of a buzz in general. Along with that, it’s a genre that Spielberg hasn’t ventured to, so: could he slip? Not only that, his first musical is a REMAKE of a 10 time Oscar winning Best Picture winning classic from Robert Wise featuring a cast of relatively unknown actors. I’m not alone in the uncertainty, because it’s easy to see. Truthfully, I have only seen the original film once (and remember enjoying it fondly), so I chose to keep it that way for viewing Spielberg’s film with an open mind and heart.
As a film, on its own terms, Spielberg’s West Side Story is a triumph. A lovely, vibrant, exciting and simply wonderful movie musical with colors that practically splash off of the screen and music numbers that you already know, but that you will love further upon seeing this. With the help of screenwriter Tony Kushner (the Oscar nominated writer of Spielberg’s Lincoln and Munich, as well as being the much celebrated writer of Angels in America), there are touches added to West Side Story that manage to ground the film in a little more reality. With the added reality though also comes the fact that the film never loses sight of what it is: an old fashioned movie musical that knows, understands, and adores old fashioned movie musicals. Spielberg has always had a gift for storytelling, and at 74 he’s not only made a movie filled with great energy but he’s also made his best film since Bridge of Spies… or maybe Munich.
Of course the film is a remake of the Robert Wise classic, but even that was pretty much inspired from Romeo & Juliet. Set in 1950s New York, the film follows two rival gangs: The Jets, a group of white Americans, and the Sharks, a group of Puerto Ricans. The Jets are led by their charismatic leader Riff (Mike Faist), and the Sharks are led by boxer named Bernardo (David Alvarez), and boy do these two groups hate each other. Enter Tony (Ansel Elgort), who is a former Jet trying to get his life straight. Riff tries luring him back in but Tony only sort of budges, when he agrees to attend a dance featuring both gangs.
At said dance, he locks eyes with Maria (Rachel Zegler), and immediately the two are drawn to each other. Once Bernardo catches wind of this though, he does his damndest to shoot it down. Tony and Maria though know that they are destined to be together though, so they cling onto the hope that their love will conquer the rivalry, while the tensions between the gangs rise further. Other notable cast members include Ariana Debose’s Anita, who is Bernardo’s wife. There is also Rita Moreno’s Valentina, a new character re-imagined from a former character, and this is of course major news considering Moreno won the Academy Award for playing Anita in the original.
Before diving into the craftsmanship, let’s just talk about these actors for a second. Elgort thus far seems to be the only one who isn’t getting praise, and that doesn’t seem fair. He does a pretty good job here and he does what is required of the role. Trouble is though, there are at least three or four other performances who have a little more of a lasting impact. Moreno’s appearance is brief but significant, not just for the history behind the performance and not just because she’s approaching 90, but because she’s still got it. Zegler has the voice of an angel, nearly eliciting tears. Faist is certainly a scene-stealer who holds his own. Though it’s Debose who perhaps deserves the most attention. There is not a second in which Debose, a beauty and a stunner in those fabulous, Oscar worthy costumes, doesn’t tear up the screen. Every time she was off screen, I craved her return, and I was already pretty sold on her… and then the “America” sequence came, and she earned a season pass.
So yeah, the music numbers. Considering he’d never made a musical before, you can understand my skepticism towards Spielberg’s handling of the material. I’m not sure what compelled him to make West Side Story, but I’m so glad he did. He had to get the story right, but more importantly, he had to get the music right, and these are definitely the best music numbers I’ve seen this side of In the Heights and La La Land. Pretty much from the opening and on, he not only had my attention but he had me in his grip. Spielberg is indeed somewhat of a a magician, in that he can pull off the unthinkable, and with this film he has done that. The film is at times a symphony of joy and wonder, in the way that he can capture best. Yet it’s also a symphony of just talent in general.
Typically with musicals, it feels like a screenplay can get lost somewhere along the way. Kushner’s script stands out though in terms of the added depth and authenticity of what we’re seeing. Kushner is also a co-writer on Spielberg’s next film The Fabelmans, and at this rate their track record as a duo is truly marvelous. Speaking of duos, let’s talk about Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The two have pretty much been inseparable since Amistad, and I don’t hesitate in saying that this ranks among their best collaborations. The colors in this film really do dazzle the eye, as do their attention to detail and lighting, but also just Kaminski’s camerawork in general here is astonishing. As are the rest of the production values, perhaps most of all the production design, which magically never feels like a movie set.
As for the story, I couldn’t remember how it all unfolded so it felt new to me watching Spielberg’s version. Yet this is one of those films where getting up to use the bathroom is at your own peril. This is a special film, one of the year’s best, that was made with joy. Some might say that with Spielberg and all of his powers, he made this film simply because he could. There are films in his filmography that do sometimes give that vibe. This film doesn’t give that vibe. This is as energetic and joyful as any movie he’s made in years, and if it’s his ticket back to the Oscars, I’m all aboard the hype train.
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