Over his decades long career, Steven Spielberg has made his very first musical. Nonetheless, Spielberg has also established that he had always wanted to try his hands at bringing a musical to the big screen with a second cinematic adaptation of West Side Story, following the 1961 film. It’d be easy enough to express skepticism to the need for a new West Side Story film, but Spielberg establishes that the material is a perfect match for him. Spielberg doesn’t work with creating a pastiche of the 1961 film as much as he does create a new screen life for one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals. In doing so, Spielberg has made what may be his best film in at least fifteen years.
The story of West Side Story is a well-known one to many: two rivalling gangs, the Jets (white Americans) led by Riff (Mike Faist), and the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), are continuously at odds with one another. Eventually, former Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) fall in love with one another; inciting further conflict between the two gangs – as inevitable tragedy befalls the two. But what makes this take on the Romeo and Juliet narrative so special and resonant over the years may be best stated by how the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet can seem so universal, as made clear by the worlds that they’ve inhabited. This can be said already about the original 1961 film, but where that movie captured the joy of seeing it on stage, Spielberg brings a new cinematic life as its own message is renewed for today’s audiences.
When Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins first brought West Side Story to the screen in 1961, it had the look of appearing like it did on stage. There was a charm to that which still feels true even today, but Steven Spielberg’s new take on West Side Story gives this story a new life: now feeling dynamic in a way that could only be made possible today. But even with the fact that West Side Story may indeed be a story all about 1950’s America, the energy that Spielberg incites with this new take feels as if he’s reassuring the viewers that a story that we could only associate with a certain era still has a greater resonance even today. In talking how the story of West Side Story transformed Romeo and Juliet into a story about the racism, sexism, and bigotry that defined America in the period which it first hit the stage, the film versions only work to reassure its timelessness.
In the original 1961 film, we start off with a bird’s eye view of New York City before we’re introduced to the Jets. Spielberg doesn’t start off in that manner, but instead we’re seeing destroyed buildings all around, while we hear the whistling of the Jets before they first come on the screen. In turn, we aren’t only seeing the Jets as mere delinquents but as defined by the film’s visual approach, even the opening “Jet Song” now has a tragic overtone to it. This has always been key to what made Spielberg’s take distinctive from the original – it isn’t the same story that we once knew it to be anymore but it’s a story that feels reflective of how little has changed in the years depicted. Where the Jets were seen as petty delinquents who always went around the block, looking for trouble, here they are displaced youth whom the authorities say they have no place for them: emphasized through their interactions with Lieutenant Schrank. Even then, it’s also nice to see that the Jets have a greater depth to their individual characters now: with Mike Faist’s Riff being the standout. As a counterpart to Russ Tamblyn’s portrayal of the original, Faist brings a certain energy that allows him greater depth than the original film did and adding to that, he is one of the best performers in the film all around.
That’s not where the joys of Spielberg’s new take of West Side Story either start nor stop; it’s a beautifully made musical all around, whether it be from the costumes, production design, or the choreography: but that energy felt in the songs is one that is also just matched beautifully by the filmmaking. You can find that this is maybe best reflected either in the school gym dance scene, or in the “America” musical number, but really, it’s just found all throughout the film. It’s a movie whose filmmaking feels like it’s always dancing to the movements of its impressively choreographed performers, and it only goes to show that the material that Steven Spielberg is working with here, is indeed a perfect match for him.
Where the 1961 film made a crucial mistake that’s hard to look past now; even by those who love it, in the fact that the Sharks were played by white actors in brownface, Steven Spielberg corrects that mistake. This version of West Side Story now sees that the Sharks are properly cast, as they are all now played by Latin actors, many of whom are newcomers. Rachel Zegler, in her first feature film role, is a star in the making as our new Maria, but her co-stars Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez are just as wonderful too. Even then, Spielberg also takes this a step further to allow West Side Story to be as inclusive as ever – first in a conscious decision by him and Tony Kushner to have the Spanish language go without subtitles, not as a means of alienation but to experience English and Spanish speakers as equals. It’s a decision many have been skeptical of, yet it’s easy enough to understand what is being said by way of how Spielberg directs the actors against their backgrounds.
All these new renditions of Leonard Bernstein’s classic tunes are always welcome because they’re wonderfully performed from start to finish – but Spielberg and Tony Kushner work together to make sure that an America we saw from the 1960’s is still exactly the one that pervades the world as we see it. These aren’t simple parallels that they draw, but with working with the same template as laid forth by Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, and Robbins on the stage, they let individual moments take on newer meanings as the songs themselves are also recontextualized. This energy is all reflected through the filmmaking and the performances, but there’s a thought about what Spielberg sees behind Sondheim’s lyrics too which Spielberg compliments in the imagery: creating a magic realism that heightens its melodrama in the best manner. One song that best showcases this is the new rendition of “Somewhere,” which is now performed by Valentina, a new character to counterpart Doc from the original, played by Rita Moreno, who portrayed Anita in the 1961 film.
Even as Spielberg’s magic behind the screen works wonders with creating the fantasy that we always associated with the American Dream in bringing back the message of West Side Story to the screen, there’s never been a more fitting match of a director to tackle this story. Many tend to classify Steven Spielberg as a sentimentalist, but even in this version it still adds more stakes than the original could; acknowledging that the “American dream” that was painted generations prior is one that continually alienates the youth and creates conflict amongst one another – given that this is a story of youths living a life fuelled by their own pride, as it is slowly being stripped away from them by the minute. This was obviously true for the story of the Jets, but even the Sharks now have their whole world painted in a similar manner, perhaps best exemplified by “America,” as this song is relocated from a rooftop to the streets – painting two wholly different versions of life that Puerto Ricans in America can experience; of extreme pleasure or to be scrutinized by the world around them, as it is more explicit than ever.
To talk about how another one of my favourite songs from the original now has a new life, there’s also the comedic “Gee, Officer Krupke” and the lead-up to the song. The original film always seemed to show Anybodys as a tomboyish girl who wanted to fit in with the Jets and didn’t see herself bound to gender roles. This version takes Anybodys a step further, now portrayed as a transmasculine, by nonbinary actor iris menas. In leading to “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets also scrutinize Anybodys but now Anybodys has a greater depth realized, having more urgency than ever, and showing that he’s a tough individual – but also painting the Jets in a negative light. With “Gee, Officer Krupke,” this number is now moved from the streets into a police station, which the Jets wreck all throughout the song, now as the song is given a sense of the way that higher authorities ultimately end up failing the very children that they claim to be protecting. For what it’s worth, this is one song that I feel is done better by Spielberg than Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s film, now with the famous “Krup you!” being shouted at him directly, rather than at his mocking caricature as depicted traditionally.
There are many moments in West Side Story that I think are wonderfully told, but I think that it’s quite stunning how the many subtle changes in the storytelling can make the most emotionally impactful moments resonate with viewers beautifully. But even as the central love story is a catalyst for the tragedy of West Side Story, Spielberg and Kushner work around that to make this into a story that is less about our own Romeo and Juliet but the real “west side” of New York. Tony and Maria have always been very thankless roles compared to the world they live in, but Spielberg directs both Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler to make the most out of what they can to make their romance one of many possibilities that things could change for the better, which has always been the heart of West Side Story – regardless of what people around them decide. And much like Romeo and Juliet, we all know it results in tragedy, which Spielberg’s sentimentality doesn’t get in the way of, but it aids in this case because of how much of this film is told through the eyes of youth in 1950’s America.
If you told me years ago that West Side Story was going to be remade, I surely would have asked the same thing: but even I always wondered how exactly Steven Spielberg could deliver as his first musical. Spielberg doesn’t only deliver what I think is his best film in over fifteen years, he brings to the screen what may be the single greatest American musical film in around twenty years. This story has always been one that remained timeless, but Spielberg’s approach is one that compliments it beautifully. But another thought that was on my mind after having seen West Side Story for the first time was that it just feels beautiful to me that while the 20th century had their own great cinematic iteration of West Side Story in 1961, sixty years later we would not only have a great one for the 21st century, but a reminder for how things haven’t changed much in the years since, as the story comes back to us in a way that resonates with modern viewers. West Side Story is a truly beautiful film all around and a reminder that Spielberg has never lost it, he was just saving up his energy for the best.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via 20th Century Studios.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the Broadway musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum
Starring Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler
Release Date: December 10, 2021
Running Time: 156 minutes