Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is an impressively acted and beautifully shot ode to the original that sparkles with passion despite not bringing much new to the table.
In there upper echelon of great American musicals alongside classics like Singin’ in the Rain and The Sound of Music, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s original 1961 film West Side Story is widely considered one of the best movie musicals of all time: a modern, urban reimagining of Romeo and Juliet propelled to greatness with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim, and stunning choreography from Robbins. It seems like somewhat of a fool’s errand to attempt to remake such an iconic film but 60 years later, Steven Spielberg has returned with a new reimagining. While Spielberg’s remake doesn’t veer too far from the original or bring much new to the table, the strength of the cast and visual flair make it just as compelling – perhaps more so- than the original.
Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, and Ariana DeBose, West Side Story follows the doomed whirlwind love affair of Tony (Elgort) a white boy and key member of the Jets gang recently released from prison, and Maria (Ziegler), a wide-eyed immigrant girl and the younger sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of rival Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. When they meet by chance at a school dance, the two immediately fall in love and pledge to run away together, but violent clashes between the Sharks and the Jet tear their love apart before it can truly begin, wreaking havoc in the lives of Bernardo, high-ranking Jet Riff (Mike Faist) and Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose).
From the film’s opening frames, Spielberg paints New York City as a grittier, less colorful, and crumbling version of the city – shot in shades of blue and grey with looming shadows and surrounded by constant decay. The cinematography and visual flair (though at times running the risk of too harshly color-graded) help to establish the world of West Side Story as a more severe, grounded, and world-weary reimagining – a trait which helps separate the film from its glossy Broadway roots.
The film’s visual identity also merges beautifully with the more character-focused approach to the story – through the musical numbers are still very much present, Spielberg seems to recognize the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of Robbins’ original direction and choreography, and instead opts to let the full weight of the emotional storytelling come from the actors and their performances as opposed to the dance-heavy identity of the original. Spielberg also (thankfully) opts to ditch the pervasive brownface of the original, though still has New Jersey and North Carolina natives Zegler and DeBose adopted exaggerated Puerto Rican accents – a strangely dated remnant of an otherwise thoroughly modern interpretation.
Outside of the cartoonish accents, though, the cast of West Side Story hardly puts a foot wrong – and, as with many productions of the musical, Anita and Riff continue to remain the musical’s most compelling and electrifying characters – frequently stealing scenes and outshining the star-crossed lovers around which the film revolves. As Riff, Mike Faist (who musical theatre fans will know as Connor in the original broadway cast of Dear Evan Hansen) bears the character’s signature sharp tongue and fearless attitude but also brings a remarkable depth, humanity, and compassion to the character that makes him incredibly endearing and easy to love, despite his sizable flaws and the impending knowledge that he’ll soon meet his death and the end of a switchblade.
Similarly empathetic is Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s spirited girlfriend Anita – a close friend and borderline mother figure to Maria who is stricken by anger and grief when the love of her life is also killed in the rumble. Anita is certainly no stranger to being the fan-favorite, and perhaps even more of a crucial and daunting role than Maria, and DeBose more than rises to the occasion – both in terms of her musical theatre ability and her acting chops. DeBose stands out as far and away from the film’s most accomplished dancer – with the signature swirl of her crimson skirt, she’s nearly impossible to look away from in “Dance at the Gym” and “America”, where her dance ability is put on full display.
Her talent doesn’t just stop with impressive vocal chops and effortless mambo moves, either – she carries much of the emotional heavy lifting in the film’s final act, her world-weary and forlorn attitude a far cry from the passionate and energetic young woman we meet at the beginning of the film. It must be acknowledged, though, that DeBose doesn’t entirely carry the last act – because, among a swath of Hollywood mainstays and accomplished Broadway veterans, Rachel Zegler more than holds her own as the tragic Maria – a role for which she seems born to play.
Where Anita is fierce and headstrong, Maria’s demure innocence would seem to make her the less compelling of the two characters on paper, but Zegler is perfectly suited to capture the fairytale magic of a young woman in love – her airy, gleeful rendition of “I Feel Pretty” is suitably endearing, but she also captures the distraught, tragic side of Maria that’s so crucial to making the film’s final moments land to their maximum emotional potential. Though frustratingly underused (through no fault of Spielberg’s own, but a byproduct of the original script) she’s nonetheless a stunningly well-cast lead, and her delicate soprano blends beautifully with Bernstein’s orchestrations.
The weakest of the leads – though still by no means bad – is Maria’s doomed paramour Tony, played by Ansel Elgort, who perhaps none-too-coincidentally is the only main cast member without professional musical theatre experience. Elgort, whose semi-slurred speech patterns and boyish grin have become his signature, gives a turn as Tony that’s very much Ansel-as-Tony – while the rest of the ensemble disappears into their characters, it’s difficult to watch him and see Tony, not Ansel. Still, even without the Broadway resume of his peers, Elgort has a remarkably strong voice – his rendition of “Maria” is one of the film’s highlights, and he more than holds his own vocally.
Opting to ditch the brownface and the broadway-style theatrics for a more grounded, gritty, and character-driven take on a legendary movie-musical, Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of West Side Story is an impressive if slightly unnecessary endeavor. With a cast chock full of impressive voices and capable dramatic actors, Mike Faist’s Riff and Rachel Zegler’s Maria stand out as highlights in a triumphant reimagining of a beloved classic.