West Side Story debuts in theaters on Dec. 10, 2021.
Few modern remakes justify their existence — or their darker, gritter palette — as powerfully and immediately as Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Its opening frames replace the 1961 film’s glorious overhead establishing shots of New York’s skyline with sweeping closeups that quote the former’s framing and movement, but focus on the intricate details of dusty slums in ruin, waiting to be torn down. It carries the same energy and whistling melody that preceded the Romeo and Juliet-inspired gang warfare, but it sets the stage for a story that zeroes in on specific facets of the classic musical’s subtext and turns them up to 11. The result is not just a new movie based on old material, but a complementary piece that feels in conversation with Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ original. It is, for all intents and purposes, edgier, angrier, and more melancholy, with each performance rising to match this enormously high bar. And while certain vital elements get lost in Spielberg’s translation, he and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński create one of the most visually dazzling works of Hollywood cinema in recent memory.
The broad strokes remain the same, with a few plot tweaks and some minor rearranging. There are the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican newcomers led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), who’s a boxer in this version, and has a boxer’s temperament. There are also the Jets, a white gang of born New Yorkers led by Riff (Mike Faist), who bristles at the changing ethnic makeup of his crowded neighborhood. And in the middle of their Upper West Side territory war is the young romantic duo of Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), and Riff’s best friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jet. The story still unfolds in the mid 1950s — as did the 1957 stage show, conceptualized by Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — but the remake’s relationship to the time period is an immediate departure from the stellar original.
Though it was shot partially on-location, the 1961 movie exists in a heightened, vivid New York, whose interiors run bright red, and whose real problems are expressed not through spaces, but through dialogue, dance, and Sondheim’s heartfelt lyrics. Some of it was even filmed on 68th Street a few blocks from where the story is set, but it went into production after the area’s planned slum-clearing — Robert Moses’s Lincoln Square Renewal Project, which gave birth to Lincoln Center and some expensive apartments — was already complete. In the new film, the demolition is still ongoing, and visible in nearly every scene. Its characters live under constant threat of displacement (the real clearing affected 7,000 families), and the intimate details of its production design create a living, breathing, decaying neighborhood that gives way to a rougher interpretation of the characters.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story
The film’s focus isn’t new, so much as it is renewed. It takes magnified aim at the white supremacy that underscored the original, and in the process, it creates a version of Riff who bursts onto the scene with a chilling combination of pain and entitlement. Faist carries himself like a cornered rodent waiting to bite before scurrying away. He mumbles through some of his lines, but it doesn’t matter. He’s terrifying and mesmerizing, and draws attention to himself through posture — especially in the extended spoken segments, which screenwriter Tony Kushner uses to elaborate on some of the original’s themes.
Kushner’s broad dialogue would probably come off as clunky and preachy in a lesser film, but in Spielberg’s hands, it’s molded into a series of notes in a larger symphony. Some moments that risk becoming unearned or overly saccharine end up fitting perfectly with the movie’s fabric. For instance, the character Anybodys — a tomboyish girl in the original, who some have read as transgender because of certain lines and interactions — is much more explicitly a transgender boy (played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas) and populates the background in ways that feel stunningly, scarily true to life. He has a brief moment of affirmation that comes not through a heavy-handed addition from a “modern” perspective, but through the way an existing line is delivered, and the energy with which it’s edited and shot.
The more explicit overlap between the Jets’ racism and that of the police — in particular, Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) — isn’t just spoken, but felt, as the two groups move subtly between friendly and adversarial body language. Equally charged and adversarial is the Sharks’ response, which arrives not only in the form of violence, but a more impassioned cultural pride. While their introduction, and film’s introduction in general, lacks the original’s audacious tough-guy ballet — there are minor hints of it during the opening, but it’s mostly reserved for a later number — it instead has them belting the Puerto Rican national anthem in compelling defiance of the Jets.
Although, while Riff is immediately magnetic, and the introduction is punchier, it unfortunately lacks a certain grace. While the Sharks all feel visually and emotionally distinct — even Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) gets to be a major standout — rarely are the other Jets distinguishable from one another, whether through their appearance, body language, or blocking (the edit rarely holds on wide shots long enough for these dynamics to take charge). Robbins’ choreography, which was used in the original film and show, and practically every major version since, isn’t replaced with anything memorable here. A mischievous musical detour like “Gee Officer Krupke” suffers doubly, since its boisterous group dynamics are stripped down but aren’t replaced with individual flourishes. Its marginally more serious visual focus — through held closeups on pained expressions, during lyrics about the Jets’ broken home lives — isn’t accompanied by significant musical rearrangement. Thankfully, these minor disconnects begin to fade as the film goes on, and its other qualities come rushing to the fore.
Justin Peck’s renewed choreography finds itself with flying colors during the ballroom dance attended by the Jets and Sharks. While it neither challenges nor meaningfully departs from the original’s movements, it becomes an adrenaline rush thanks to how it’s filmed, with the camera riding up and down lines of dancers like a gust of wind, and spinning around to match the energy in the room. The same can be said of the 2021 version of the delightful “America,” led by Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Hamilton’s Ariana DeBose, who moves and emotes with tremendous passion). The music and lyrics remain nearly identical, but it’s one of two numbers that’s transformed thanks to not only its new placement in the story — which more closely matches the stage show — but its transposed setting, from an isolated rooftop to the busy streets of San Juan Hill. The other notable changes surround the jazzy number “Cool,” which has a brand-new emotional and physical context, and a full-bodied commitment to the original’s balletic aggression, resulting in a gripping intensity that ripples through the rest of the film (it now leads directly into the fierce ensemble number “Tonight Quintet,” and into the heart-stopping rumble).
The 1961 film was stage-like in its visual conception; its story burst to life through wide shots and lateral movement across the screen. In contrast, Spielberg and Kamiński charge breathlessly into the third dimension, exploring how these characters move through their environment, and how their environment moves through them. It’s the Renaissance fresco to the original’s more flat Italo-Byzantine, with depth and point perspective woven into each shot — through dance, camera movement, and even some of Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn’s cuts, which regularly punch in and out from the same angle, as if to shake you by the collar and remind you that editing is what makes a movie, and makes it magic.
Most magical of all is the way the film captures Tony and Maria, a wildly imaginative conception of young love that makes all its other flaws simply melt away.
Zegler, who plays Maria, brings both a radiance and a lifelike honesty to the movie’s operatic romance. She navigates a delicate intersection between nervous discomfort around Tony, and a sense of comfort within that discomfort, like it’s a part of herself she can share with him. Maria also has a discomfort speaking English, but the film features significantly more Spanish and Spanglish than the culture of ’50s American musical theater might have allowed. In keeping with the themes of cultural belonging, the Spanish isn’t subtitled by default, conferring equal importance upon English- and Spanish-speaking viewers (depending on the showing, either all the dialogue is likely to be captioned — for disability access — or none of it).
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In a narrative departure, Tony is rougher around the edges, with a background that makes his story about wrestling between light and darkness — an idea Kamiński embeds into his visual palette, with lights and lens flares seeping through the corner of every gloomy space. The Tonys in each film embody their respective versions of New York; Richard Beymer had a dreamlike quality that made it seem like he was floating on air. Elgort, meanwhile, plays Tony with a subdued anger and regret, a perfect match for the film’s crumbling corner of New York that wants nothing more than to rebuild itself. His optimism is grounded in a convincing desire to be better — a touching sentiment that, unfortunately, finds itself at the mercy of real-world events (the recent allegations against Elgort cast an unavoidable shadow, making Tony’s decency an occasionally hard pill to swallow).
Tony also works for (and has an incredibly sweet dynamic with) a new character named Valentina, a replacement for Doc, who still runs a drug store, and who’s played lovingly by the great Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original film. It’s the most explicit connection between the two works, which are folded further into conversation when Valentina is given her own number about belonging (she sings “Somewhere” instead of Tony and Maria), and the film briefly fades between her and DeBose’s Anita, as if to connect Moreno’s two characters through time. Her role within the film is similar; she plays a Puerto Rican woman who married a white man, so her generational experience allows her to speak directly to the hurdles Tony encounters while courting Maria.
That courtship is heart-fluttering to witness because of how Kamiński paints it, turning Spielberg’s busy backgrounds and lively foregrounds into showstopping tableaus. The remake interprets the butterflies of love-at-first-sight as flashing lights — as spotlights positioned horizontally along a ballroom floor, interrupted briefly by dancers charging past, lost in their own movement as they fade into silhouettes, while the glowing Tony and Maria get lost in each other’s eyes. A key scene of them together is lit through the stained glass of a church, with a light source swaying slowly outside, as if it were trying to peek in on a private moment, inadvertently washing them in a floating rainbow. It’s a rare thing for a musical to make even the presence of God feel like it’s dancing.
And just when the film feels like it might become too ironic or self-aware — a handful of passersby remark silently on Tony’s crooning, as if it’s out of the ordinary — Spielberg and Kamiński lean unapologetically into their dreamlike formalism, using bright lights and broken spaces to root the characters in the vibrant and the crestfallen, the real and the ethereal, all at once. The floodlights illuminating Tony as he searches for Maria are blurred and foggy, to the point of resembling morning clouds. Their heavy lens flares become rays of sunshine. When Tony ends up at Maria’s balcony, the dingy lights from the cramped apartments above shimmer in the filthy puddles below, and make him seem like he’s walking on stars. It’s the kind of breathtaking imagery that closes the gap between heaven and Earth, and keeps bringing us back to the movies.