Apparently, before this remake of “West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg had never directed a musical. Better still, it looked like a passion project, if the closing intertitles showing “For Dad” are any indication. It would be a daunting task anyhow to direct a musical in 2021, remaking a legitimate classic among musical theater nerds, film fans, and critical analysts. It’s interesting that Spielberg manages to not only reach the peak moments of the original but also surpass it in key moments.
The trick that makes “West Side Story” stand out is the screenplay and direction. The original was co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, and the movie wasn’t smooth enough to amalgamate those two differing styles. Thus, it was inconsistent even in terms of camerawork and narrative structure. Its strong points are the soundtrack and the dance choreography, which were legitimately striking at certain moments. However, the placement of songs one after the other without providing ample breathing room for the narrative to progress hampers its justification as a movie rather than a theater production.
It’s not to say that the remake has ironed out all of the kinks, either. But what it manages to do is distinguish itself enough from the original to stand out as its superior entity. New York, especially the neighborhood in the story, is undergoing gentrification, and Spielberg manages to showcase that neighborhood in the 40s as almost like a warzone. The buildings are almost destroyed, with rubble, grime, and dust flying everywhere. In the hands of cinematographer Janus Kaminski, the neighborhood comes off as a dystopian nightmare. In these destruction-surrounded environments come the Jets and the Sharks, the two rival gangs, dancing in perfect unison with balletic accuracy. That disconnect is cleverly exploited by Spielberg here. Instead of showcasing an over-the-top vibe with the gang members dancing during the showcasing of violence, Spielberg forgoes the dancing. His action sequences, the fighting and chase scenes are shot in closed-off spaces, allowing him to show the brutality of that world. It also highlights the contrast in the romance that blossoms between Tony and Maria, a deceptive simplicity in star-crossed love that offsets the violent existence of these characters.
Tony Kushner’s screenplay for this version is another prime highlight of this movie. He manages to take the narrative beats of the source material and then remix and update them for a modern audience. The Puerto Rican characters, especially Bernardo, Maria, and Anita’s story, are given a much-needed focus. Even a character like Chino, who was relegated to the background until the final few minutes of the original, is given a much-needed flourish in terms of character development. While the Jets remain relatively unchanged, Riff and Tony’s relationship comes off as a far stronger and deeper friendship. Primarily, that credit should be given to Mike Faist as Riff, who manages to showcase a lanky charm and intense ferocity in equal measure. From the Sharks’ standpoint, David Alvarez manages to bring out his charismatic bent on Bernardo without replicating George Chakiris’ version in the original. However Ariana DeBose as Anita leaves a prominent mark in the audience’s psyche. Taking on a fierce, spunky character like Maria, who had already been essayed by a performer like Moreno, is no easy feat, but DeBose more than makes up for it. Anita is strong, smart, sassy, and yet there is a shade of vulnerability, softness, and understanding in her character, which DeBose manages to portray with light and feathery touches in varied moments. Moreno also returns in “West Side Story,” this time as Valentina, the Puerto Rican owner of Doc’s store. Her interactions with Tony as well as the world of the Jets and Sharks give a much-needed dimension to the story, especially the racism shown towards the Puerto Ricans as well as the inherent racism between them.
It’s Spielberg’s direction that is easily the talking point of “West Side Story.” The massive improvement and one of the key positive leg ups this film has is its dynamic camera work, which couples perfectly with its choreography. Justin Peck’s choreography is sublime, especially for the songs “America” and, surprisingly, the song “Cool Boy.” Cool Boy manages to stand out even more because of its placement in the movie, smoothing the narrative itself. The high school dance would be the litmus test for a majority of the fans of the original about the merits of the film, and while the dance itself is expertly filmed, what stands out to me is the moment when Maria and Tony lay eyes on each other. The original was a beautiful sequence in itself, but here Tony and Maria lay their eyes across the dance floor while the dance is occurring between them. The camera follows them horizontally as they walk on without removing their eyes from each other. It’s an expertly shot, marvelously edited, and beautiful sequence, a masterclass in blocking. The sequence then moves to the back of the high-school gym, where Maria and Tony start conversing, lightly flirting, and Maria dancing to the tune of the music. These little moments are what we look for in a musical. A musical is supposed to sweep you up in the melodrama and the colorful storytelling, and I would be damned if this sequence didn’t sweep me up in the story.
It also manages to make me root for the romance between Maria and Tony, star-crossed love straining at the edges of realism be damned. Rachel Zegler’s performance as Maria in her debut role is exemplary. While her appearance might be a bit too perfect or “doll-like,” her performance is passionate and fiery. Easily the best part of the chemistry between Maria and Tony, she manages to overshadow Ansel Elgort’s Tony more often than not, who is perfectly fine in “West Side Story” but doesn’t rise above decent in the role. Every facet of the conversation he shares with his co-stars, he is the least important part of all of them.
“West Side Story” is still not a perfect film by any measure. All of the songs from the original made it into this version, which is a shame because there were a couple that were unnecessary then and even now. The casting of Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans in the roles of the Sharks is also a necessary and appreciated one, but Spielberg’s decision to not subtitle the Spanish-speaking segments is baffling. Yes, the corresponding English dialogue sometimes follows these segments, but it still feels like you are missing out on key moments of interaction. It helps, however, that the cast is universally strong and that the emotions during those moments shine through. It’s baffling, however, that the last 30 minutes are almost completely unchanged because the sequence at the restaurant between Anita and the Jets still didn’t work for me. The final sequence feels very sudden, but more affecting because you are invested in this relationship to see it through.
“West Side Story” is very much a celebration of a genre that has been Golden Age Hollywood’s bread and butter. As a remake, Spielberg’s version does what any remake should strive to do: capture and explore the narrative beats of the original and also justify its existence, and for my money, this is a superior version compared to the original. It is also Spielberg’s best work in his recent filmography, and that says something about the prolific nature of his filmography as well as the different strokes he manages to showcase in his directorial oeuvre even now.
“West Side Story” is a 2021 Musical Drama film directed by Steven Spielberg.