There’s a new Steven Spielberg movie in theaters. It’s about Sharks, but it isn’t another Jaws. It’s about Jets, but it isn’t a sequel to Catch Me If You Can. This is something we’ve never seen from Spielberg before — a movie musical.
Spielberg’s name is synonymous with cinema in a way that no other living filmmaker’s is. And in some ways, the movie musical is the most cinematic of all genres — one that marries sound and image to project big, broad human emotions on the big screen in a scale that’s larger than life. When the West Side Story remake was first announced, many were scratching their heads at the very notion of it. Spielberg? A musical? Why this? Why him? But after watching his update of the 1957 stage musical, and the 1961 film adaptation that won Best Picture and a slew of other Academy Awards, it’s suddenly bewildering that it took Spielberg and movie musicals this long to cross paths.
The new West Side Story is a loving tribute to the past that also nudges the original text into this modern era, with culturally appropriate casting and nuance added to the plight of Puerto Rican immigrants trying to make their way in mid-20th century New York City. Beloved songs like “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty” are still here, but the story surrounding them packs more punch than it did in the 50s and 60s, thanks both to Tony Kushner’s insightful adapted screenplay and a modern audience that’s savvier about the disadvantages faced by the Sharks relative to their white counterparts.
West Side Story ‘61 had a couple vibrant scenes featuring the Sharks and their female counterparts — most notably, the witty ditty “America,” in which Anita and Bernardo debate the perks and shortcomings of stateside life. But Robert Wise’s 1961 film was clearly more aligned with the Jets’ perspective, and so was the (largely white) audience back then. The territorial warfare ended up looking like it was all in good fun, despite tragic consequences for some characters. The 2021 West Side Story, on the other hand, feels genuinely conflicted — not just about whether it’s the Jets or the Sharks who deserve our sympathies, but about whether either of them do. This West Side Story is world-weary, exhausted by baseless hatred and misogyny and violence, and beyond frustrated with tribal fighting that serves no purpose except to hold everyone back. If that doesn’t speak to 2021, I don’t know what does.
Rita Moreno, who won her Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film, shows up here as Valentina, a widow who bridges both worlds. She voices a deep frustration with the futile feud between clans, one that resonates outside the particulars of this story and instead speaks to a greater weariness — a deep-seated fatigue with America itself. In the film’s most harrowing scene, the Jets ravage Anita. The scene is reprised from the original film, but this time around there’s real menace to their attack. This is not just “boys being boys” — they’re seriously assaulting her. Valentina intervenes and lays into them, rightly dubbing them “rapists.” It’s not just the way West Side Story finds more empathy for the Sharks that sets it apart from the 60s version; the new West Side Story scrutinizes and ultimately condemns its white antiheroes. This past year also brought a big screen adaptation of West Side Story’s direct descendant, In The Heights, with some more ethnically appropriate bona fides behind the scenes but much less panache. No one can make a movie quite like Spielberg can. His kinetic cinematography energizes the already lively song-and-dance sequences, elevating several numbers to truly thrilling heights. So many movie musicals squander their cinematic potential, especially during the musical numbers — Rent, Phantom Of The Opera, and Les Misérables, to name just a few of the worst offenders — because their directors don’t seem to understand the first thing about what makes a musical sequence sing. West Side Story makes the case for no one but Steven Spielberg to be allowed to direct big, splashy Broadway adaptations from here on out.
The casting is nearly pitch perfect, too. The star-crossed lovers at its center are played with maximum winsomeness by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. Tony and Maria are more like avatars for young love than full-fledged characters, but so were Romeo and Juliet, so that’s okay! Elgort and Zegler manage to sell this overwrought love story, even in its broadest strokes, making it newly urgent and even, sometimes, hot. (One slight misstep: Tony’s supposed to be recently released from prison, and Elgort can’t quite sell us on that. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief more than usual, however, in a movie that features rough and tumble street gangs high-kicking in the streets.) Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist are the cast’s true standouts as the more colorful supporting characters Anita and Riff, stealing scenes whenever they’re on screen.
Some are complaining that, despite the updates, West Side Story is an inherently problematic text, so this remake is inherently unnecessary. Sixty years later, why is a movie that speaks to the woes of poor Latino immigrants still being helmed by rich white men? Doesn’t that ensure that the new West Side Story can only be tone deaf to the voices and concerns of real Puerto Rican-Americans all over again?
That criticism might be valid, but is it missing the point? Part of the joy of a big, splashy movie musical is the artifice, the way it only kind of represents reality. Anyone looking for gritty authenticity probably shouldn’t be looking to West Side Story to begin with. Hollywood should absolutely make room for more diverse perspectives, but that doesn’t automatically mean there isn’t also room for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. (Because it’s good. If we’re going to wipe ill-conceived films off the face of the Earth, let’s start with all the bad ones, okay?) Besides, West Side Story isn’t just about the Sharks. It’s about the heated hatred between two dancing, singing street gangs, and it’s the white boys who take the brunt of the blame, thanks to filmmakers who were unafraid to look inward for the source of this strife. There’s something highly satisfying — and maybe even admirable — about seeing one of Hollywood’s most prolific insiders reexamine and update this classic, highly celebrated text. It’s a little bit old, and a little bit new. A little bit problematic, but a little bit fixed. It’s still West Side Story, but most of what hadn’t aged well in the past six decades has been made right.
West Side Story could probably still be a little bit better attuned to its Puerto Rican-American characters, but it couldn’t be much better as a film. On the whole, Kushner and Spielberg got it about as right as anyone could, and these days, that’s something worth holding onto.
Ultimately, West Side Story is a beautifully crafted throwback to old Hollywood, with a dash of fresh contemporary relevance sprinkled in for good measure. It’s an achievement worth celebrating.