Steven Spielberg is one of those directors where it feels as though he could tackle any genre. Even in his old age, he’s still trying new stuff. In 2011, he directed his first animated film with The Adventures of Tintin. It ended up being one of the best-animated films of that year and is perhaps the best motion-captured animated film ever made. So when he previously mentioned that he’d like to try his hand at a musical, there’s little doubt he couldn’t pull it off. Indeed, his version of West Side Story is just as gorgeous and thrilling as the classic film. The movie even has Spielberg’s own mark despite relying heavily on the original score by Leonard Bernstein.
As with most of his films, Spielberg’s interpretation of 1950s New York City is big and beautiful, even amid the mess of construction and the struggling working class. The feud is on between the Jets and Sharks, the Jets being white and the Sharks being Puerto Ricans. The racial tensions increase over turfs as the police can do little to prevent the many rumbles between the gangs. The opening scene highlights how far this battle stretches as a chase and slugfest break out when the Jets march into Shark territory. Sick of winning battles, the rivals decide to hold a rumble to end all rumbles where the winner takes all.
Riff (Mike Faist) is more or less the leader of the Jets and his slick talk instills cockiness and confidence in his men. Hedging his bets, Riff tries to entice former Jets member Tony (Ansel Elgort) to aid in his rumble. Tony wants nothing to do with the Jets given that he’s recently gotten out of jail and is trying to go straight while on parole. He’ll find himself being drawn back into the world of gangs, however, when he fancies the lovely Maria (Rachel Zegler). Maria, however, his association with the Sharks and the romance becomes starcrossed as an urban Romeo & Juliet.
Spielberg’s tweaks to the original are minimal. The score by Bernstein has hardly been altered by composer David Newman as all the classic songs remain with that same sense of wonder and cool evoked by moody 1950s jazz and jumps. The choreography is still just as stunning even if it feels like Spielberg doesn’t have much more than a bigger palette to place these fantastic dance numbers.
All that being said, the acting is a mixed bag. The highlight is without a doubt Ariana DeBose in the role of Anita. She has a feisty bite to her concern for Maria as well as one heck of a vibrant voice and fancy footwork. Watching her dash about the streets in a flowing dress is quite the sight. Elgort, however, is the weakest element. It’s not just that the recent allegations of him being a sexual abuser paints his role as a starcrossed lover in a different light, although it really does when considering the age of Zegler during filming. His dancing and singing are okay but incredibly weak when paired next to the delivery of Zegler. It’d be great if he could’ve been removed though this isn’t an All The Money In The World situation where you can just shove in a Christopher Plummer at the last minute, as ideal as that may be. It’s unfortunate but understandable given how massive this production must have been.
But by far the biggest joy of the picture is Rita Moreno who brings unparalleled warmth to the role of Valentina. She brings ease of understanding and humor to how she tries hopelessly to inch Tony towards a better life. Her musical number, “Somewhere,” is a powerfully heartfelt sequence, even for being posed more like a montage of other characters.
The most intriguing aspect of this production is how much it embraces the Puerto Rican culture of New York. Similar to this year’s other strong musical, In The Heights, this is a film where Latino actors are bilingual as they dance between English and Spanish in conversations. This is fascinating for the scene of the hot-headed Bernardo (David Alvarez) jumping between both while trying to chew out Maria for dating a white guy. Anita stresses he should speak English for practice and he finds himself slipping between both, frustrating him all the more as he struggles to make a point.
West Side Story is a Spielberg flex for the director to prove he could handle a musical. He doesn’t subvert the musical but instead gives it a flashy polish for an update that stays true to the original while making slight altercations. On that level, the picture feels like going to see a solid cover of a brilliant song. It still works but it’s more admirable for the fact that Spielberg could pull it off. Then again, he’s been known to jump into other genres so easily, so maybe this is just par for the course. It’s not the director at his best but certainly a fascinating example of how effortlessly he can pull off such a project. I can’t imagine any other director delivering something this good for material so revered.
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