West Side Story is Steven Spielberg’s best film in years. It’s a movie with a huge mountain to climb – a revered 1957 musical forged by Leonard Bernstein (composer), Stephen Sondheim (lyricist), Jerome Robbins (choreographer), Arthur Laurents (writer), already adapted into an Oscar-winning classic in 1961 – but crossed it with the grace and ease of a Jet pirouette around New York. It is one of the greatest crimes of recent cinema not to have found its audience on the big screen. Box office masterminds cite the reluctance of its expected core demo – older audiences, women – to return to multiplexes during Covid’s re-emergence as responsible for its lower-than-expected theatrical gross. In truth, despite rave reviews and strong word of mouth, there has been so much sleep on West Side Story, he generated more Zzzzs than Zorro. But, as he bows on Disney+, it seems – like the Force some 30 years after the Battle of Yavin – there has been a revival. The world is becoming aware of the indisputable fact that West Side Story is a cold stone masterpiece.
If you want proof of the resurgence, on Feb. 26, filmmaker Shane Anderson tweeted the bravura one-take tracking shot that sees the Sharks, a 1950s New York Puerto Rican gang, enter a social mix at a gymnasium where their American rivals, the Jets, burn the dance floor. ‘This photo of West Side Story this is absolutely insane,” Anderson wrote, the clip has been viewed 3.3 million times and retweeted by the likes of Edgar Wright and Guillermo del Toro, who wrote, “Bewildering, virtuosic, but one of so many , so many shots that make the camera dance “with each musical number.”
Covering the action in one shot – from the Sharks strutting around the room, to the strutting Jets, to the Sharks jostling for position on the sidelines – made perfect sense for the director. “It was going to let you enjoy the dance happening right in front of you, instead of drawing your attention from side to side of the dance floor,” Spielberg said. Empire in October, before the film’s release. “It was also a great way to show the fact that the Jets had completely taken over that gymnasium, leaving no room for anyone to dance. When the Sharks first came in, it kind of showed where the lines of The picture’s significance was also not lost on Rachel Zegler – a rookie actor playing debutante Maria, a Shark girl who falls in love with ex-Jet boy Tony (Ansel Elgort). It’s a very, very Spielberg-esque shot,” she said. “I’m in a couple oners and I’d tease him because he knows there’s these video essays online. he was like, ‘I know! I know!'”
The many colors of Spielberg’s genius abound throughout West Side Story. As you’d expect, the imagery – in cahoots with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski – is off the chain; the opening shot sees the camera moving over rubble, soaring over a fence to survey the creation of Lincoln Center before landing on the Jets emerging from a hatch, the shot carefully showing that the territory for which the gangs are fighting is already a hollow-out war zone; Tony singing ‘Maria’ standing in a puddle reflecting a kaleidoscope of lights; the upper plane of the gangs, all long stabbing shadows, entering the rumble. There are plenty of grace notes – a Jet pulled away for a fight just before he could light his daughter’s cigarette; a little girl opening a window while Tony sings “Maria” in a building filled with a million Marias – and a stunning set-up. Note the comedy of Tony trying to scale the fire escape during “Tonight,” or the powerful simplicity of the final procession.
He is a filmmaker in full control of his medium, a perfect hybrid between stylization and reality.
There’s an energy and commitment to Spielberg’s work here that has been absent from both his recent crowd pleasers and historical dramas. From “Cool,” turned into a tense battle for a gun, to the multi-faceted montage of “Quintet” as all the characters contemplate battle, to the utter joy of “I Feel Pretty” staged in multiple mirrors. like musical gold, he is a filmmaker in full control of his medium, a perfect hybrid between stylization and reality.
Spielberg described West Side Story like a street musical, and it’s a film that’s embedded in New York in general — the Jets sing their signature song on busy streets rather than an empty playground like the Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins version — and in the Puerto Rican community in particular. In virtually every other version, ‘I Feel Pretty’ is set in a bridal shop. Here it happens with Maria working the night cleaning crew at a department store. “I think it’s a great commentary on the realities of Latinas then and Latinas now,” Zegler says. “It wasn’t just about wearing pretty dresses and dancing in the streets. When the sun goes down, we’re going to clean up the white people’s stores. This is a very big statement that we made.
From populating the Sharks with authentic Latino actors (no colorism here) to deciding not to subtitle entire swathes of Spanish dialogue (thus not “altering” the Puerto Rican characters), this is a good fix. taste and tact to less noticeable representation in the ’61 film. It climaxes in the “America” number, moved from a rooftop to an uplifting frolic in the character-heavy San Juan Hill neighborhood — the film’s happiest five minutes of 2021. “The Language of dance for Anita is more celebratory and confident and contagious to the community around her,” says choreographer Justin Peck. “Whereas Bernardo’s is a bit more uptight, physical. He’s a boxer in this version of West Side Story. So there’s definitely an element of that present in the way it moves. When words fail to argue with each other, we have this whole other form of expression that turns into dance.
All in all, the impression you get is of a summit meeting of new triple threats.
It’s a sequence that’s both perfectly controlled and infectiously free, full of lovely detail (listen to the heavy punctuation on Anita’s punches) and huge sweep. In one of the film’s many skillful transitions, the action shifts to Tony learning Spanish from Valentina (Rita Moreno, Anita in the 1961 film). After watching “America”, who doesn’t want to be part of this explosion of color and joy?
As much as it is about portraying the true Latino experience, it is also about portraying the strength and depth of young theatrical talent. Iris Menas’ attitude-filled Anybodys, normally portrayed as a tomboy, is transposed to a trans-male persona, bringing the invisibility of gender nonconformity to a character who slips in and out of the shadows . Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino etches arguably the film’s greatest character arc, from shy suitor to Maria – watch his klutz-y attempts at dancing in the gym – to dark destroyer swearing more revenge than Batman . David Alvarez as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks and Maria’s overprotective brother, is a muscular yet sensitive presence, brimming with patriotic pride and the charisma of a leader; a phenomenal mover, he is the unsung hero of the WSS together. Mike Faist, as the leader of the Jets Riff, is an edgy, edgy presence that shoots from the hip. It’s a performance of disgruntled young people (and disenfranchised Americans) for the ages. All in all, the impression you get is of a summit meeting of new triple threats.
But the heart and soul of West Side Story belongs to two women. Ariana DeBose’s Anita is the film’s beating heart, both a whirling dervish on the dance floor (or around the corner) and a voice of common sense, endlessly piercing Bernardo’s machismo. But as the story darkens, it also has the dramatic chops – it’s the hardest heart that doesn’t cry as it drives away from a police station (this West Side Story is this rare musical that includes a morgue identification scene).
She is matched by Rachel Zegler, who gives the film its soul as Maria, often referred to as a boring ingenue as dishwater. Zegler imbues Maria’s wide-eyed opening with delicacy and wit — listen to the cheeky rasp she gives the “Miss America” line in “I Feel Pretty” — before tapping into a deep, hurt anger as his world crumbles. When the couple shares the screen of the duo “A Boy Like That / I Have A Love”, it’s electric. Hopefully the movie will pick up enough background to spark a sequel: Maria and Anita go to Vista Del Mar. These two women definitely need a break.
Having achieved his career dream of doing a musical – don’t forget To win over started out as a song-a-thon – Spielberg is reportedly actively looking for a western to do. It will have to go some way to beat its latest genre reinvention. A valentine for musicals, diversity, romance, and romance, in the words of “Something’s Comin,” Spielberg grabbed “the moon, a one-handed catch.” And it deserves to be seen, whether on the big or small screen.
West Side Story is now streaming on Disney+