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West Side Story

Updated: Mar 21, 2023


I’ve seen WEST SIDE STORY on Broadway, again in a touring company and of course the 1961 movie version, but watching Steven Spielberg’s 2021 re-imagining of the material, I realized I’d never really ‘seen” it.

It’s never been one of my favorite musicals. Smart but atonal, bright but dated, it failed to connect with me any way. I tended to watch it more out of duty to experiencing the classics than any love of the material.

Spielberg does it again.

Working with his favorite writing partner of late, Tony Kushner, they create a new flow to the story and a sense of propulsive urgency that was never present. Kusher (Angels in America) somehow updates the material but honors the late 50’s timeframe with a new authenticity.

This is one of Spielberg’s best-looking films.

My eyeballs about popped out in the first ten minutes.

We’re dropped into the west side of Manhattan as projects are being leveled to make way for the Lincoln Center. Tenants are half torn down, resembling the bombed-out towns of Normandy that Spielberg and Hanks tore through in “Saving Private Ryan”.

Director of Photography Janusz Kaminsky (Schindler’s List, Lincoln, Indiana Jones) never lets his camera stop moving. Swooping down past wrecking balls into the devastated slums, he makes the gang wars for turf seem more urgent. The territory they are fighting for is slipping away to progress.

We meet the Jets and the Sharks. Their 2021 incarnation is much more violent & lethal. Are they dancing and singing? Yes, but that’s never seemed quite as dangerous as it does here.

Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Riff (the fantastic Mike Faist) are the leaders of the Jets. White, poor, and aimless, their focus is a rumble brewing with the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez).

The original film made the gang turf wars seem lightweight, but the racial tensions and explosive anger are all too real in Spielberg’s vision. Faist owns the screen every time he’s on it as Riff. His screen presence blows Elgort off the map whenever they share a scene. Elgort is fine as Tony, but it’s much easier to believe him as the post-prison Tony looking to avoid violence than to believe he was ever the gang’s aggressive leader.

Alvarez is excellent as Bernardo. A Tony Winner as Billy Elliot when he was young, Alvarez had dropped off the grid, but proves to be an inspired Spielberg casting decision. As is newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, who falls in love with Tony and inspires the doomed Romeo & Juliet romance that Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim set to these songs 60 years ago.

Jerome Robbins choreography in the original stage production and film was legendary at the time and Justin Peck more than does it justice. Watch the way the Jets and Sharks prowl the streets in the opening sequence. Every movement is timed to the millisecond. It’s flawless.

Spielberg fans that remember the USO dance sequence in “1941” or the nightclub Busby Berkley sequence in “Tempe of Doom” know that the director has dabbled in big musical production numbers before, but it’s not exaggeration to say that two scenes he’s created here will stand as some of the best dance sequences in film.

First, we have the mambo sequence at the dance, with the Jets/Sharks and their friends circling each other two swirling mobs that break out into a massive group number. As great as the scene is, gently folding into Tony & Maria’s first meeting behind the bleachers, it’s topped by Ariana DeBose as Anita, belting out “America” and pouring out into the streets of New York in an explosion of movement that boggles my mind trying to take in Spielberg’s staging, Kaminsky’s photography, jaw dropping sets by Adan Stockhausen (The Grand Budapest Hotel), lighting and special effects that seamlessly drop you into a 1950’s NYC street dance. It’s literally jaw dropping.

Kusher brilliantly created a new character, giving Rita Moreno a chance to return to the story 60 years after winning a Tony and Oscar for her performance as the original Anita. Now she is Valentina, running the local bodega like an island of normalcy in the middle of the devastated neighborhood.

Kusher moves “Somewhere” later in the story and changes it from a love song between star-crossed Tony & Maria into a sad song by Valentina to her dead husband. Moreno is excellent, as is Jose Andres Rivera as Chino. Chino’s role is vital to the story, but the character never made an impression on me before. In Rivera’s hands, Chino is powerfully tragic.

Several of the songs take on new life with Spielberg’s staging. “Cool” is a fight sequence/dance scene that pops with both violence and color as the Jets fight over a gun and leadership of the gang. It’s Elgort’s best moment in the movie and Faist is in total control and screen center as Spielberg stages the fight like Indiana Jones going up and over that Nazi truck in “Raiders”. Fantastic.

What a shame that the film bombed so badly in theatres.

It’s a bad omen for studios that crank out superhero film after superhero film but deliver movies for adults with ever decreasing frequency.

I love a good superhero movie and thought the latest Spiderman movie was an all-time great in the genre, but as it went on to gross nearly a Billion dollars in the USA, Spielberg’s visionary $100 million instant classic floundered to $10 million opening weekend and a $38 million total in the USA.

That defines underappreciated.

Find the biggest 4k screen you can. Crank up the Dolby Atmos and settle in.

Spielberg has created not only one of the best films of his career, but one of the best films of the year. It’s powerful, moving, and important.

WEST SIDE STORY gets an A+ and a spot very near my all time Top 100 films.




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