Spielberg’s authorship is distinctly felt in this version of West Side Story, and more than in the original, it here truly feels as if life exists beyond the music.
The New York City of Robert Wise’s 1961 West Side Story — rendered as line-drawings in the overture and then shot from above in a helicopter telephoto sequence — no longer exists, if it ever did in the first place. The 1957 play, as produced by Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein, plays with a certain, harmless universality, no doubt facilitated by its omnipresent source material, Romeo and Juliet, so even as Wise decided for a few flourishes of documentary realism, his adaptation was a self-contained entity, successful, but successful only on its own, noncommittal terms.
Steven Spielberg’s own adaptation begins similarly to Wise’s, but within an instant, yanks itself away from any precedent. Opening with an aerial shot of an obvious cityscape, or, what at least used to be one, the camera surveys an endless field of battleship gray rubble, with a few mangled fire escapes poking out, before panning up toward a sign that lends the film a bracing period setting: as the frame expands to bring more half-crumbled buildings and various construction vehicles into view, an announcement of “slum clearance” for the city’s monument to displacement, Lincoln Center. No sunbaked playgrounds, no brick walls of screaming reds — just the aural hallmark of West Side Story, the Jets’ assembly whistle, echoing across the lots and blown-out apartment blocks.
As West Side Story on the stage was such a hit, Wise maintained a certain fidelity that distended the virtues of his film, so that song sequences, even if coasting on a specific visual and performative brio possible only within the musical, could unceremoniously spin out of nowhere, and then crouch back into nothingness. With 60 years now elapsed, Spielberg isn’t restrained by any requirements of preservation to ensure the ubiquity of the stage production for those who may have not experienced it. This cold open — a proclamation of newness that furnishes itself as such by interrogating the past — practically encourages one to begin divvying up the film in their head, separating it into varying camps of past incarnations. Still, it’s important to first orient oneself within the realm of what’s carried over: the American (Italian, Irish and Polish) Jets are in a turf war with the Puerto Rican Sharks; Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jets heavy-hitter, has fallen for María (Rachel Zegler) at a gym-dance; María, however, is the sister of Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) who will have it out with his enemy and counterpart, Riff (Mike Faist), Tony’s best friend. A night of unencumbered love is followed by a night of unforgivable violence, the story is a tragedy.
Spielberg is an aesthetic re-constructivist, a tic that’s even outpaced certain films of his just this past decade (like, say, The Post) — story can be dispensed with fast and loose, but the formal building blocks of each and every scene, in their temporal specificity and thematic import, hints at a nagging perfectionism, like the IP-binge of Ready Player One or the East-West divide of Berlin in Bridge of Spies, both projects which have their detractors and champions alike (both are strong works). West Side Story, then, is one of the more amenable frameworks for the director’s intense style, as the only way to make it truly yours is to characterize more, to imbue a stronger sense of place. Its relative scantness disallows the scales moving in the opposite direction. And thus, Tony is on parole for almost killing a kid in a previous rumble; Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) is an adding-machine repairman and aspiring accountant; Bernardo is a boxer, and he lives with María and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose), the family’s tailor shop now an enterprise run from behind a few curtains stretched between the kitchen and the living room (where parents were once spoken of as if they were just in the next room, or at least down the block, they’re entirely absent here, save for a handful of brief mentions); the drugstore proprietor, Doc, has died, and now the store is run by his Puerto Rican wife Valentina, played by Rita Moreno, who was Anita in Wise’s film all those years ago.
These newly established details provide recourse for a text that has had trouble reconciling its idealism with an attempted unflinching reality. Far from superfluous, the throughline of conflict is made all the more combustible, as gentrification looms, the struggle over these surviving few blocks a last-ditch pledge of contested ownership. Spielberg smuggles in more verbal abuse, more plainspoken racism that stings just as much as the newfound viscerality of the fights, which introduce themselves with a few paint cans smashed against some skulls, and even a nail driven through Baby John’s (Patrick Higgins) earlobe. Spielberg isn’t just deromanticizing a film that occasionally treated race as little more than window-dressing with a few more epithets hurled at the Sharks (as well as some transphobia as experienced by Iris Menas’ Anybodys), instead constructing a graceful twinned narrative, one that finds its mirrored elements among unlikely, but no less worthy, candidates: Chino, as well as Tony, is a reluctant participant in his friends’ scrapping, but finds himself drawn in all the same.
Wise’s film confined much of the Sharks’ activity to their one apartment building, while the Jets took advantage of Manhattan. Now, both gangs stake out territory, with “America” whirring alive not after a night out, but the morning after, casually sung within the throes of routine — singers join as they string their laundry out their windows — before moving out to the streets. Life is a local matter, which Spielberg conveys through his backlot playground of New York City, the frame bisected by laundry lines and fire escapes, oscillating rays of light beaming from box fans, curtains blowing through windows. The director’s manipulation of space is often remarkable, where emotional gulfs as large as the city itself open themselves between characters in paradoxically cramped apartments, which makes “A Boy Like That,” between a tearful DeBose and Zegler sideswiping in its staging, the hitherto warm interior now broken apart.
The song sequencing is reshuffled to accommodate for this expansive setting — “Play It Cool” sung between Tony and Riff at the dilapidated 57th street pier, “I Feel Pretty” now sung by Marìa on her night-shift at Gimbel’s — and Janusz Kamiński’s vigorous camera chases actresses through the opulent displays as if this were a George Cukor film. There’s some courtship at the Cloisters, “Gee, Officer Krupke” believably develops from within central booking, Tony and Marìa even take the subway (!), and only after shooting “Tonight” with some fire escape acrobatics that animate the song with the lovestruck inability to remain still. Such a willingness to wander courses even through the gym dance, as the couple meet behind the bleachers, their romance elevating them beyond the scattered detritus of the dance floor’s daytime use. Moreno stands as the zenith of this recombinant structuring, with “Somewhere” reserved for her by her lonesome, the lyrics coming as she sits at a table at her empty store, her voice touchingly weathered with age, reedy at the high notes, but still robust with the lows.
Too bad Elgort is mostly a dud, ennobled not by the material, but an apparent smugness. If Tony is historically a void, Elgort beats out Richard Beymer, while the lithe and casually charismatic Faisk definitely encroaches upon Russ Tamblyn’s status as Riff. Tony may plateau, but as Marìa, Zegler facilitates her own transformation across West Side Story’s trajectory, the otherwise generic loss of innocence made palpable by an actress who cuts herself off before her visible hopefulness tips over into cloyingness — perhaps her strongest attribute is her ability to inhabit an all-encompassing hesitancy. She’s an arresting presence, even when Spielberg and Kaminski aren’t flooding the screen with flares and innumerable light sources, which elsewhere is used to frequently save Elgort from his own anticlimactic exhibitionism (like when a puddle reflects back fireworks of apartment-building lights surrounding Tony). The stage-like “naturalism” of West Side Story is unerring, but here, for the first time, it truly feels as if life exists beyond the music.