West Side Story is a cultural touchstone. I know this because I never saw the original Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins 1961 classic, yet I knew Officer Krupke’s name. But even more astonishing was the discovery that the opening scene between the Jets and the Sharks with Officer Krupke was burned into my subconscious through years of cultural osmosis.
Outside of that, all I knew was that the infamous Steven Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein musical was adapted from William Shakespeare’s ode to idiot teenagers in love with Romeo & Juliet. But West Side Story is more than that. It’s also an examination of class and race via dance and song. So, obviously, Steven Speilberg was the director of choice.
However unlikely the choice may have been, and however white the decision may have been, the result is a shrewdly updated remake of a classic into something sure to be a modern classic. West Side Story is a different beast than modern audiences are used to in musicals. Unlike La La Land or The Greatest Showman, West Side Story demands you give yourself over to it or else you will be lost.
West Side Story is from an era of musicals where characters dance without speaking, but their movement is meant to be communicative. Modern directors struggle with this simply because elemental frame composition is going by the wayside and literalism is taking hold of our artform. So strangely, Speilberg is precisely the man you want behind the camera.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with this movie. The opening shot as Janusz Kaminski’s camera pans out over the rubble of the West Side of New York with a sign promising the eventual arrival of Lincoln Center promises a visual vibrancy that West Side Story more than fulfills. Speilberg and Kaminski allow both the camera and the actors freedom of movement essential to bring Sonheim’s story to life. The music, the dance numbers, and the dialogue all move the story along so that each moment is vital to the narrative and character arc.
Not to mention the songs are catchy as hell, and the actors are so damn charismatic that you can’t help but snap your fingers along with the beat. The Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) have the kind of charisma that risks causing the film’s print to burst into flames. There’s a lingering sadness in each character that they try in vain to cover up with a macho bravado.
Tony Kushner adapted the 2021 version and has, with a fine scalpel, penned a West Side Story that understands race and the anger fermenting in the modern youth. Riff doesn’t view himself as racist, he just doesn’t like how easy the Puerto Ricans have it. Bernardo wants the same thing Riff has, the freedom and dignity to be himself. Except both are bound by their class. They are kept in chains by a police force that tries to pit one side against the other and has no natural feeling towards either of them.
West Side Story keenly understands that what makes the Jets so dangerous is not their youthful passion and naivety. Instead, they don’t believe themselves to be racist despite tossing around slurs and brewing hatred for anyone who isn’t their shade of white. An attitude that comes raging to the surface whenever their passions become inflamed. Riff and Bernardo are terrified that their way of life is on the chopping block, the bulldozers are around the corner knocking over their neighborhoods, and the only thing they have any control over is the turf and each other.
In the midst of all this is the forbidden love of Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort). Sadly unlike Faist, Alvarez, or even Anita (Ariana DeBose), Bernardo’s lover, Elgort is outclassed, outmatched, and outacted in every turn. It’s a pity because Zegler’s Maria is an angelic captivating movie star in the making, and when she and DeBose share scenes, West Side Story is more riveting than anything in theaters right now.
West Side Story is partially so impressive because, as bland and out of depth as Elgort is, he never wholly derails the mammoth engine of optimism and tragedy that is Speilberg’s unstoppable force of cinema. The fact that Speilberg, Kushner, and the cast can keep the film’s heart beating despite Elgort’s technically proficient but ultimately utter lack of charisma is an art all its own.
Speilberg is at the top of his game, more than he’s been in some time. I believe that while Spielberg hasn’t been making bangers the last few years or so, he has been making interestingly flawed films attempting to wrestle with the political landscape of America. That dance is on full display, literally, as the optimism of the American dream tangos with the dour realism and heartbreak of the American reality. Never is that more on display than the infamous “America” number.
DeBose’s Anita and Alvarez’s Bernardo have an argument detailing the benefits and pitfalls of immigrating to America. The two bicker like a couple in love, aiming for the heart but can’t help but flirt as they sing and dance, belting such lyrics as I’ll get a terrace apartment/Better get rid of your accent. ‘America’ perfectly encapsulates the genius of Sondheim and Bernstein, as well as the genius of Spielberg. They celebrate the joys of being alive while acknowledging the price of not being white in America. They also confront the genuine question, is life in America really that better than Puerto Rico?
Kaminski and Spielberg pull back and show us DeBose and Alvarez dance and glide across the screen, the brightly colored dresses popping off the screen as the pulsates with so much life I felt the projector might burst. The camerawork is a dance all its own. Take the “balcony” scene between Tony and Maria, for example. Only here it’s the fire escape in place of a balcony. The way Kaminski and Spielberg frame Elgort’s and Zegler’s faces through the grates and bars of the stairs symbolizes how society is keeping them apart.
At times Zegler is lit like an angel by Kaminski and Spielberg. The big dance at the gym with its scene behind the bleachers is a perfect example. The way they use color illuminates the background and keeping the foreground in shadow and then slowly switching it as characters walk towards one another. West Side Story isn’t just well made; it’s breathtakingly gorgeous to boot.
Spielberg and Kushner make tweaks here and there that bring West Side Story further into the present despite its period setting. One such tweak is the character of Anybody (Iris Menas), a non-binary kid who desperately wants to belong to the Jets. In the original, Anybody was a tomboy, obviously coded as Butch, but making them non-binary fits and brings West Side Story screeching into the 21st century. But the Jets’ heteronormative whiteness can’t stand what they feel is an aberration. Until that is, she brings them some vital information that is key in taking down the Sharks. Of course, then, they are one of them.
Anybody haunts the edges of the frames, always on the outskirts but never a part of the scene; an outsider to the outsiders. They represent how the LQTBIA+ community is always banished to exile; the price of acceptance is white supremacy. Many feel the price is too high, but some are willing to pay membership dues for a sliver of acceptance.
Other tweaks include the brilliant addition to set designs, such as taking the “America” dance sequence from the rooftops to the streets to give it a grander feel, along with putting holes in the dock for the “Cool” number. A number in which Tony discovers Riff has bought a gun. Having been to prison, Tony instantly understands that this raises the stakes to a level beyond mere streetfighting. Riff treats the gun as a toy. The song’s tension is heightened due to how Tony and the others dance around the gaping holes in the dock, a symbol of the emotional precipe they are all and the dangerous consequence their actions are leading them to.
Rita Moreno returns as Valentina, the wife of the neighborhood drugstore owner. She employs Tony, lets him sleep in the basement, sees all of this, and only watches. Valentina is a Greek chorus. She begs Tony to stay away from Riff and his friends, but Tony can no more deny Riff and the gang than he can deny himself. But time in prison has given him time to think, and he’s beginning to discover a different kind of life, a life of the mind, and not just pure action.
She sees what these boys that she has seen grow up have become, which disgusts her. “You have grown up to be rapists.” A line so blunt and filled with such loathing that the Jets have the decency to look somewhat ashamed of themselves.
West Side Story has the grandness of fate and the nuance of humanity. The ending is tragic and inescapable. The story must end this way; ending any other way would feel like a betrayal. Bernstein and Sondheim’s music and lyrics give us a tale of love and heartbreak but not because of Maria and her fair Tony, but because America is the land of broken dreams and promises.
Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios
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