The original West Side Story is widely considered one of the best movie musicals of all time, garnering a whopping ten Oscar wins, and spreading the gospel of Tony and Maria far and wide. Earlier in the week, I watched the 1961 classic for the first time ever (having known the songs mainly through the lens of pop culture, and Glee covers), finding it shockingly accessible and far ahead of its time. Now, a full 60 years after the original, comes Steven Spielberg’s passion project, a loving ode to the legacy of West Side Story that carves out a brand-new romance for modern moviegoers. 2021 has been a stellar year for the movie musical, with everything from In the Heights to Dear Evan Hansen to tick, tick… Boom! completely knocking it out of the park. West Side Story is my favorite of them all, and one of the best films of the year. Honoring a classic story with a fresh coat of socially-aware paint—and the poignant lyrics of Stephen Sondheim—has never tasted sweeter.
Spielberg’s explosive reimagining opens with the familiar whistle, a trademark of the original musical. For the uninitiated, West Side Story follows a whirlwind forbidden romance that sparks a dangerous gang war between white juvenile delinquents, the Jets, and Puerto Rican immigrants, the Sharks. The couple in question: “West Side legendary” Tony (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars, Baby Driver), now on parole fresh from a one-year prison stint, and naive and sweet Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler), the 18-year-old sister of Sharks gang leader Bernardo (David Alvarez, Tony Award winner for Broadway’s Billy Elliot.) The new script from Angels in America playwright and utter legend Tony Kushner wisely gives us plenty of time to get acquainted with the love story between Tony and Maria. Tony is trying to keep mostly to himself as he moves in with sassy shop owner Valentina (original West Side Story alum, Rita Moreno), even despite best friend and Jets gang leader Riff (Tony-nominated actor Mike Faist) attempting to bring Tony back into the fold. Meanwhile, Maria lives with her brother Bernardo and his longtime girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose, The Prom), and longs for more. Bernardo tries to set up Maria with the awkward Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), who simply cannot dance. Maria feels stifled by her brother’s control over her, sure to reapply her dark lipstick when he isn’t looking.
The backdrop of the mid-1950s, amongst immigration, huge construction projects, and the “New York City Committee for Slum Clearance” means tensions reach a fever pitch between the Jets and the Sharks well before Maria and Tony first meet. Corey Stoll plays Lieutenant Schrank, a straight-talking P.I. that promises both gangs will soon be asked to evict due to the new housing and big changes coming in the neighborhood. Riff and Bernardo in particular are not thrilled. Neither the Jets nor the Sharks will turn on one another to talk to the cops, instead choosing to settle things on their own terms. The film’s big opening sequence culminates with a paint-drenched defacing of a Puerto Rican flag mural. Things end up so tense between the two gangs that just bumping into one another during a dance is enough to set them off.
The big inciting event of West Side Story comes during this dance—the fateful meeting of Tony and Maria. Gorgeous lighting as the two first eye each other across the gym floor bathes them in beauty as a vibrant dance number unfolds in front of them. Their gaze stays locked, eventually leading one another behind the bleachers. Beginning with seductive finger snaps and the eventual naivety of a first kiss, Tony and Maria’s first encounter is expertly crafted. Maria says “you’re tall,” to which Tony replies with a laugh, “I know.” You can feel palpable chemistry between Elgort and Zegler almost instantly, from the moment he recoils from the surprise of her embrace, before the two lock back into a second of pure movie magic. “Do you want to start a World War III?” Anita muses to Tony shortly after the kiss ignites a confrontation between Tony and Bernardo—this warning wrapped in a threat proves to be surprisingly accurate when it comes to the Jets and the Sharks. A promise is made for a final turf confrontation, a simple handshake between Riff and Bernardo. Who will reign supreme: the Jets or the Sharks?
The answer is, of course, more complicated than one would anticipate. Intolerance, prejudice, hatred—what is the true road to avert tragedies? For fans of West Side Story, the sharp script layers the characters even further, and makes choices that feel entirely organic without being exploitative. The Spanish speaking is intermingled with the English seamlessly, sans subtitles, and it detracts nothing from the overall experience. Even without full understanding of the dialogue, the true emotion bleeds through, and peppers much-needed authenticity. Bringing back Rita Moreno was also a stroke of genius. One would expect little more than a cameo, but I got the sense Spielberg knew precisely what he was going to do with her. She gets a relatively juicy role, relishing every moment onscreen and sharing the majority of her scenes with Ansel Elgort. One gets a real sense that Valentina cares about Tony, and is rooting for his rehabilitated state. The music number “Something’s Coming,” is not just a showcase for Elgort’s incredible crooning voice, but an exemplary depiction of the adoration that Tony and Valentina have towards one another.
In a sea of absolute knockout performances, there is not a single chink in this film’s impressive cast armor. Considering they had to wade through 32,000 audition tapes and a full year of casting before making their final choices, it becomes all the more impressive at the level of talent they were able to cherry-pick. A clear standout is Hamilton star Ariana DeBose, who fills the shoes of Anita with a fiery, passionate performance. “America” is one of the most iconic songs in West Side Story, and thankfully receives a colorful reception epitomizing everything great about that song. David Alvarez as Bernardo and Mike Faist’s Riff are utterly dynamic playing opposing gang leaders; there’s a danger and boldness to each portrayal that sings with the sadness of their respective characters’ circumstances. Ansel Elgort’s terrific charisma and smooth vocals match with Rachel Zegler’s raw, electric turn as Maria. I simply could not get enough of the two of them together. The church scene specifically really resonated with me, and solidifies the duo as a true big-screen romance.
The musical performances, a vital component, are directed with an expert eye for detail and closeup. A couple of the numbers play out in nearly the exact same way as they did in the first iteration. The intimacy of numbers like “One Hand, One Heart” and “Balcony Scene (Tonight)” perfectly convey the passion and emotion of the characters. The latter is powerful and almost playful, with Elgort acrobatically climbing all over the scaffolding, and Zegler’s assured charm. Some songs have been reworked entirely, with nearly all of the choreography brand new. In my opinion, the best are the ones that present a completely new take than what we have seen before. “Cool” has been reimagined as an impressively suave fight, a stunning way to portray conflict. The high point probably comes in an effective rendition of “Somewhere” that literally drove me to tears.
For those longing for the old-school musical to make a comeback in a big way, I implore you to see West Side Story on the biggest screen possible. In IMAX, the colors pop, the score crescendos, and the vocals soar. The love story of Tony and Maria goes down as one for the ages, as led by Elgort and Zegler. The narrative feels even more vital now than I am sure it already was back in 1957, when four gay men created a truly special show for Broadway. Finally tacking his first movie musical, Steven Spielberg and the entire cast has delivered a West Side Story that I cannot wait to revisit over and over again for years to come.
West Side Story begs you to keep it “coolly cool, boy” when it debuts exclusively in theaters on Friday, December 10th.