West Side Story (2021)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Tony Kushner, based on West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins

Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno

“I’ve always wanted to make a musical. Not like “Moulin Rouge” though – an old-fashioned, conservative musical . . .  Like “West Side Story” or “Singin’ in the Rain”. I just need something that excites me.” – Steven Spielberg

The place is New York City in the 1950s. The Jets and the Sharks are constantly fighting over the turf they both desperately want to control. Amidst the ongoing gang warfare, two betwixt lovers, Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), fall for one another; Tony, a former member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the rival gang leader, Bernardo (David Alvarez) fall for each other in secret. Adapted from the stage musical of the same name by Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg brilliantly dips his toes into the world of musicals with great delight in his modern interpretation of “West Side Story,” now in theaters.

The storyline will be familiar to fans of the stage musical and Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation. The romance is alive; the violence is real, as are the themes of love, cultural differences, finally achieving peace; the story, the songs, and the dancing all have something for everyone. Spielberg filmed the exterior scenes in Harlem, the Flatlands, Brooklyn, New York, and Paterson, New Jersey.

Elgort is no stranger to music-driven stories, taking the lead in 2018’s “Baby Driver.” Here, though, he trained with vocal coach Jeanine Tesori, and you can hear his voice, especially in “One Hand, One Heart,” “Somewhere,” and “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love”; Sondheim‘s lyrics truly reach for the stars. Choreographer Justin Peck worked with the cast to mirror Jerome Robbins’ dance movements for the original stage play, an aspect of the updated film’s ability to convey a modern sensibility in a classic sense. The work behind the scenes is just as crucial to the overall story as what we see on the screen – truly a spectacular effort for the ages.

With odes to “Romeo and Juliet,” Kushner and Spielberg have your feet tapping from the opening frame to the fade out of the end credits. The film, which runs 156 minutes, doesn’t feel like 156 minutes; “West Side Story” is a breeze and pure enjoyment to watch. (It helped that I’d watched Wise’s classic film before seeing Spielberg’s version, though I can’t tell you the last time I was at a stage play. Perhaps in 2022?)

The breath of fresh air comes courtesy of newcomer Rachel Zegler, whose no-nonsense attitude fits like a glove against Elgort’s classic looks and moves. They are a match made in heaven, and they play together exceptionally well.

It is easy to make comparisons to Wise’s classic and unnecessary. Spielberg applied updates to this adaptation to make it his own, and the pride the cast and crew demonstrate in the final product is brilliant. It will make your heart soar, especially in the times we find ourselves in now – the divisions between cultures today are at an all-time high, and Spielberg reminds us that we can put aside our differences, that the magic of love will find a way.

Of course, I can’t leave this review without speaking on Rita Moreno, who starred in Wise’s classic and has an extended role in Spielberg’s soon-to-be-classic. As Valentina, a shop owner and the center of activity, she reminds the audience what it means to be without, to be cast aside and divided. While I agree with every accolade applied to the film thus far, Moreno is as much the beating heart as Tony and Maria are.

Spielberg collaborated with Janusz Kaminski to create the film’s visual style, giving light to even the darkest of passages, conveying the film’s message. Spielberg elects to mix languages throughout the story. Kaminski expertly captures the essence of their body language, elevating the movie above the discord in society today. Additionally, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, and Corey Stoll all leave a positive impression with their performances. James and Stoll appear to be having a grand time trying to corral the Sharks and Jets and prevent more bloodshed.

Before the film’s release, it was banned due to the inclusion of Iris Menas as Anybodys in certain jurisdictions, which is also a sad state of affairs. Menas’ performance is crucial to the third act, even more so than the character in the Wise film. In response to the ban, the production has suggested that love will find a way.

Indeed, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and his love for the story shines and will find a way.

PG-13, 156 minutes, 20th Century Studios/Amblin Entertainment