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REVIEW – “West Side Story”: Spielberg’s First Musical a Complete Winner

At the spry age of 75, Steven Spielberg really sees no end to his creative road trip to nowhere in particular, enjoying the myriad stops in his path. We’ve seen him tackle toying with nature, science, historical politics, the tenderness of human emotion, and a few alternate realities (anyone still remember the underappreciated splendor of Ready Player One?). The man sees no reason not to challenge himself from time to time, and he’s accomplished that masthead once more by trying a hand (or both) at his first musical.

With anticipation well boosted by its pandemic release delays, West Side Story couldn’t have positioned itself better as the holiday film event of 2021. At least for the week prior to another key entry determined to share, if not overshadow, marquee space. But within the first few minutes of its eventful song-and-dance, no longer confined or constrained to meet any manner of antiquated Hollywood protocol, budgetary limits, or cultural standard, its presence to lure in an excited crowd and rewrite pages of a tall life manuscript ventures beyond mere justification. Think of it as a genuine celebration, one of a time, a place, a culmination of conflict and value.

For both Spielberg, and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln), there was likely no better central point to land than a late 50s New York rooted in truth. Gentrification has begun, reorganization has left whole communities to the point of fracture and frustration. Between a pair of roving street gangs, the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican-oriented Sharks, lies a simple battle for their dying territory. Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James) are attempting to smooth things over as the slums are slowly removed. Neither Bernardo (David Alvarez) nor Riff (Mike Faist) is hearing any of it, effectively reaching an impasse. That is, until the night of a social dance hopes for some form of unity. It draws the attention of Tony (Ansel Elgort), once the Jets’ muscle but now looking to change his ways. Falling head over heels for Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) does place the former leader in a pigeonhole of contradiction, wooing her charms, while batting off his powerful past affiliation on the eve of a final turf war.

If you know the original Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim (may he RIP) production, and its immediate 1961 cinematic counterpart, then the story will be familiar enough. Clearly Kushner recognizes the beats director Robert Wise had amplified for the screen, a spectacle in its regard, and sees multiple pathways by which to deviate. And ultimately, the story we know so well is better off veering away from being a clean, lavish fantasy. In its place with Spielberg confidently moving the active frame along, a sense of grittiness, and a tender core that balances tension with compassion, doing so with effortless gumption.

Mild stereotyping has been delightfully replaced with a firmer grip on reality. That much is evident in locations alone, the cast pitted around New York landmarks with a hyper realistic coating to mask any stray present-day elements. All whilst long-time Spielberg DP Janusz Kaminski once more sees easy work of blending what’s real with a yesteryear palette. Particularly with wider-scale street shots on “America”, the lyrics and dance steps suddenly pumped with a newfound breath of air with energy, menace, conniption to spare. Not that its 60s counterpart didn’t possess persistent energy. Here, Kushner’s navigation encapsulates a dedicated consistency past iterations could only dream of.

How these moments are staged with Maria and Tony, Maria and Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DuBose), Bernardo against Riff, Tony with mama hen employer Valentina (Rita Moreno, fulfilling a true full circle moment after her Anita won her an Oscar) only makes up half the equation. Each event or interaction occurs with a purpose, layered atop one another to benefit Kushner’s tweaks, as well as Sarah Broshar and Michael Khan’s collective editorial skill. The other half is all up to the performances themselves. And just like on stage, no ounce of effort can waver below a certain standard. Spielberg sees that just like he would any other film. Again, with welcome adaptations.

How Bernstein and Sondheim’s (may he RIP) words and chords rise to the occasion here embraces professional honesty like a warm hug. The aural experience at face value, rearranged with reflexive vigor by David Newman, manages to hit more than just the ears. It attacks the soul, unwilling to retreat until the final notes fade into obscurity. And with each cast member delivering their own vocals at a full one hundred percent, we might hold on those notes a bit longer. That goes especially for Elgort, whom I was rather skeptical about his singing experience (nobody told me about his R&B records). But he excels with a nimble grace and a concise athleticism, often channeling the intensity of La La Land-era Ryan Gosling, upped to a 12. DuBose is the secret weapon, her operatic fervor only standing to compliment the vibe Miss Moreno had offered in the same role. Any scene with her in front is nothing short of heart stopping.

The standout, deservedly, is newcomer Zegler. Making a sparkling debut as Maria, her sense of optimism and apprehension against a wild case of cultural hostility made for above-all accurate casting. An element I could probably have never said with Natalie Wood. Owning the spotlight with restraint, you can’t help but walk away somewhat spellbound. By the time Zegler steps out of frame and the lights go up, I was wondering how that could’ve been a real thing, how her Maria actually happened before the cameras.

The naturally occurring sense of screen magic found here did indeed happen. Kushner’s revisionary healing does promise plenty to fuel that fire, with the reward even greater for fans of the play. It allows Spielberg another moment of closure in his directorial arc, once dabbling in the musical realm during major sequences on Temple of Doom and 1941. It was only a matter of time before the right material landed, and his West Side Story proves patience speaks volumes. It may be a remake of a certain nature, but it is more of a reinterpretation, staying faithful to what came before, but altering what’s needed to leave the venture far more entertained. Do I feel that it improves on its direct counterpart? Perhaps not on every single level, but in many ways, most assuredly. Knowing it will remain a hub of contention for some time to come, the unique differences in play may serve to compliment this Shakespearean offshoot’s legacy for years to come, if not to a mark of immortality. (A; 4.5/5 Horns Up!)

West Side Story arrives in theaters December 10; rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking, 156 minutes.