Before I begin to pile on the superlatives about Steven Spielberg's new version of West Side Story—and oh, yes, there will be superlatives, many, many superlatives—let me talk to you about the 1961 West Side Story, which won 10 Oscars and made the equivalent of $400 million at the box office.
Sixty years ago, that West Side Story was something new—an adaptation of a Broadway musical that was also a ripped-from-the-headlines problem story about juvenile delinquency and ethnic strife. Even though it was adapted from Romeo and Juliet, it was adult, hip, relevant. Characters almost actually cursed! A song mentioned marijuana! There were knives and guns! It was so advanced that it featured a then-dazzling opening aerial scene of New York City. Location shooting and a zoom lens, in color—what could be more up-to-the-moment than that?
Nothing ages as badly as a movie that's supposed to reflect the reality of the year in which it was made. If it does its job well, it's frozen in time. If it doesn't do its job so well, it comes across as risibly self-important and cringe-inducing a few years later. West Side Story is pretty much the latter. And when you add in the egregiously bad acting—not just the dubbed Natalie Wood with bronzer on her Russian cheeks but the equally dubbed and entirely stiff Richard Beymer, who gives, bar none, the most dreadful lead performance in any garlanded movie ever made—the 1961 WSS comes close to being unwatchable.
Except. Except. Except. Even the original West Side Story‘s fatal flaws can't obscure its astounding glories. There's that Leonard Bernstein score, with note progressions that literally induce tears. There's that Jerome Robbins choreography, with its peerless focus on male aggression—you can never forget that moment in the number "Cool" when the Jets crouch and snap and advance menacingly on the camera—and the endlessly twirling dresses of the Puerto Rican girls as they dance in the gym or on a tenement rooftop. There are the hilarious Stephen Sondheim lyrics, for "America" and "Dear Officer Krupke." And there are Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno, burning up the screen as the lead white delinquent and the fiery Anita.
Rita Moreno, now 88, has returned for the new version, six decades after winning an Oscar for the original. She plays a Puerto Rican drugstore owner—originally an elderly Jewish man in the original Ernest Lehman screenplay (which is an entirely faithful rendering of Arthur Laurents's Broadway libretto). And Moreno gets a song, a solo reprise of the love duet "Somewhere." In her hands, the song turns into an elegy for the disappearing New York City where she has lived and worked for decades. It's a beautiful, quiet, and devastating moment—and highlights one of the many brilliant shifts in plot made by Spielberg and his scenarist, Tony Kushner.
Rather than just being a generic conflict tale about two warring delinquent factions in postwar Manhattan, the Spielberg/Kushner West Side Story is set at a particular time in the past and in a particular place now vanished—a neighborhood dubbed San Juan Hill that stood west of Broadway north of Columbus Circle and is now largely the site of Lincoln Center. From 1947 until 1960, San Juan Hill and its environs were largely razed during the national frenzy for "slum clearance." Nearly 20,000 Manhattanites were displaced by a sterile modernist cultural campus that has never really worked, not to mention once-middle-class housing that over time has become yet another place for rising young bankers to buy homes.
The horrifying unintended consequences of the slum-clearance craze is one fact on which inequality-obsessed leftists and opportunity-obsessed conservatives now agree. This terrible policy is the real villain of the new West Side Story, and it's a surprisingly good one. I assumed the temptation for Spielberg and Kushner would be to make the cops the bad guys here, given the fact that it was filmed in 2019, but it treats the legendary Officer Krupke with shocking kindness; he's a decent neighborhood guy with asthma and an ulcer and all he wants is for these kids to leave each other alone and save themselves from prison.
Half the neighborhood we see here, in the midst of its destruction, looks like London during the Blitz, while the other half is a vibrant re-creation of a teeming and pulsing Upper West Side of the 1950s—then the most ethnically and economically integrated neighborhood in the United States.
This all makes the new West Side Story a period piece in the best way—a very specific backwards look that is consumed with getting the details right to anchor its timeless Shakespearean story in a concrete American reality. And, my oh my, how it looks. The production design by Adam Stockhausen is jaw-droppingly real, and the cinematography by Janusz Kamiński is heart-stoppingly gorgeous. And then there is Spielberg's peerless handling of the camera, which glides and swoops and spins and climbs as though it is the greatest dancer Jerome Robbins never choreographed.
Movie mavens have been waiting for four decades for Spielberg to try his hand at a musical, ever since he staged a five-minute dance fight in the otherwise excruciating 1941. That was one of the best production numbers in Hollywood history. This movie is so seamlessly powerful that there are no standout sequences; they're all standouts. From first to last, Spielberg proves so brilliant at managing the mix of story and song and dance that it makes you deeply sorry this is probably the only musical this 74-year-old master is ever going to make.
Robbins's original choreography came to dominate the story in the original version; here the new dances by Justin Peck serve Spielberg's overall vision rather than overtaking it. Kushner and Spielberg have also reorganized the show somewhat so that "Gee, Officer Krupke" appears in the first half rather than as the show-stopping "11 o'clock number" it is on stage and in the original—a wise choice that allows the movie to attend to the reasons the white kids in the Jets gang have gone so off the rails.
The heart of the story involves five people. Riff is the head of the Jets, the gang trying to control the streets of the area from encroachment by the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo. The movie begins with the Jets moving through their warzone-like neighborhood on their way to defacing a mural with a Puerto Rican flag on it—a political flourish that works perfectly. Riff is played by the Broadway actor Mike Faist, who is as dazzling in the role as Russ Tamblyn was in the original.
Bernardo lives with his girlfriend Anita and his 18-year-old sister Maria, who has just come to New York from San Juan. He's a boxer. Anita wants to be a dressmaker. Maria works as a cleaning lady at the Gimbels department store. The Puerto Ricans are all strivers. They come from intact families. Not so the Jets, who are (as a tough-talking cop named Schrank says at the movie's outset) the unwanted products of parents who didn't strive—drunken boys who made it with naïve girls and then sent their issue into the streets to live aimlessly and pointlessly.
This kind of sociological detail is all Kushner's work, and it's marvelous—adding accurate texture and flavor to the show's sketchiness where these characters are concerned. He tries to do it as well with Tony, the ex-Jet who falls for Maria at a glance. In previous versions, Tony's moony qualities and effort to hold himself apart from the Jets are never explained. But here, Tony is an ex-con who nearly killed a kid in a gang fight and has been left wracked with guilt. Capturing these new shades to Tony's character required a quicksilver actor who can show real flashes of violence along with the pure joy of awakening love. And while Ansel Elgort is in fine voice as Tony, and has real chemistry with Rachel Zegler's Maria, he just doesn’t have the chops the part needs.
But Zegler, whom Spielberg spotted in a YouTube clip, sure does. This is one of the great debut performances in Hollywood history, on a par with Audrey Hepburn's in Roman Holiday. Not only does Zegler have a gorgeous voice and a winsome face, she makes you feel everything Maria is feeling—even to the extent of pulling off the most difficult acting challenge in the story. Maria must convince Anita to help her get Tony away from New York even after Anita knows Tony has inadvertently killed her love, Bernardo. Natalie Wood was ridiculous in the scene, and it's the hardest thing for anyone to have to manage in any stage production. But Zegler is both so desperate and so pure as she sings "I Have a Love" you can see why and how Anita melts. This is also a tribute to the extraordinary Ariana DeBose, who, like Faist with Tamblyn's Riff, manages to prove Rita Moreno's equal in the property's flashiest and most memorable part.
West Side Story is a masterpiece. Full stop.
Published under: Movie Reviews