'West Side Story': A Lively, Beautiful Update of a Classic Musical
Updated: Jan 23
It's no secret that a movie musical is a tricky feat for any filmmaker to pull off. Most musicals are adapted from stage productions, and some directors just don't have the eye or the know-how to properly bring them to the screen. As a result, we don't tend to see truly great movie musicals all that often. As someone with a background in theatre, I've learned to keep my expectations low when it comes to musical adaptations. I rarely go in expecting much because I don't want to be disappointed. Don't get me wrong, there have been a few good musicals to come out within the past several years, but most of them just didn't work for me all that well. It takes a special person to pull off making a movie musical, and if anybody can do that, it's gotta be Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg is a man who truly needs no introduction. He is easily one of the most widely known filmmakers working today, and has made some of the most iconic films of all time. He has had a long and storied career, and has made a wide variety of films over the past several decades. But through it all, he has never directed a musical until now. It's not from lack of trying, however, as he has wanted to make a musical for years. It has been one of his most sought after projects, but the opportunity seemed to elude him until he signed on to direct a remake of the classic musical West Side Story. To direct such a beloved musical, let alone on your first attempt at directing a musical, period, is a tall order. But Spielberg, along with screenwriter Tony Kushner, manages to capture the essence of the original production, while also updating it slightly for modern audiences.
The original production of West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, and was a huge success. It was first adapted for the screen in 1961, and went on to win 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. In the decades since, it has managed to stand the test of time, and is still loved by many to this day. It would have been easy for Spielberg and Kushner to essentially do a shot-for-shot remake of the 1961 film and call it a day, but that is not how either one of them operate. Instead, they both looked at the source material, and looked to see just how they could bring this story to our current times, while also retaining the elements that made people fall in love with it in the first place. There are a handful of small changes that the film makes, but they all serve the story well, and gives us an excellent retelling of a true classic.
If you look back at the original 1957 production, you can see that the creative team is wrestling with social issues of the time. It deals with racism, violence, and xenophobia, just to name a few of its themes. Sadly, these themes are as relevant now as they were then, and Spielberg is fully aware of this. Rather than skirt some of these issues, the film confronts them head-on, and makes several specific choices to give them even more of an emphasis. One of the clearest examples of this is in its opening sequence. While the 1961 film opens with a brawl between the Sharks and Jets to illustrate the conflict between them, the 2021 version goes a step further. We see the Jets making their way through the streets of New York with paint cans, as they go to deface a mural featuring the Puerto Rican flag. This allows the film to be much more upfront about the racial tension between the Sharks and the Jets, and immediately lets the audience know that it isn't going to shy away from tackling important social issues.
We also see the film recontextualize certain songs and characters throughout its runtime. One specific choice that stuck out to me is how the film portrays the character of Anybodys. In the original production, this character is portrayed as a tomboy, but the 2021 version portrays the character as a trans man. This allows the film to dig into themes of identity and tolerance in new avenues, and gives the character some added depth. We also see certain songs taking on different meanings throughout the film, as slight changes to either who is singing them or where they appear in the film are made. Another choice that I loved is that it does not use subtitles when characters are speaking in Spanish. I feel that this aids in making the film's themes of assimilation and immigration stand out a little more, and helps create the portrait of America that Spielberg is seeking to achieve.
As for the sheer craftsmanship of the film, I was blown away. Spielberg directs this with such ambition and mastery that it frustrates me that it took him this long to make a musical. He clearly has a good eye for it, and the film is a veritable feast for the eyes. Of course, his frequent collaborator, Janusz Kaminski, plays a major role in that department. Kaminski uses light and shadows so well, and crafts beautiful shots all throughout the film. His use of cranes and aerial shots are especially great, but he also uses close-ups quite effectively. He also excels in the big musical numbers, as he captures the dance sequences gorgeously. One of the standout moments of the film is the America number, and so much of that is due to how Kaminski uses the camera to capture it. The production design is also fantastic, and evokes a bit of the Old Hollywood musical style that the film is going for. It's a fascinating mix of old and new, but it works so much better than I would have ever guessed.
I've already gushed a little over Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, but they both knock it out of the park here. Spielberg's direction is masterful, and Kushner's updates and changes make the film a refreshing, bold, and highly relevant interpretation of the source material. Given that this is an adaptation of a musical that is over 60 years old, some changes needed to be made. But it is the specific changes that surprised me, as most of them are ones that I wouldn't have thought to make. Of course, the one thing that the film still holds on to is its impeccable musical numbers. The score doesn't change, and the film still has quite a bit of Jerome Robbins's original choreography in its DNA. I can't think of a particular number I disliked, but some clear standouts would have to be America, Cool, Gee, Officer Krupke, and Rita Moreno's beautiful rendition of Somewhere.
Speaking of Moreno, her role here is especially fascinating, given that she originally played Anita in the 1961 version of the film. In this version, she plays Valentina, a storeowner and mentor to Tony. She basically fulfills the Doc role from the original production, and she absolutely nails it. She gets some of the most emotional moments of the film, and she pulls them off excellently. We also get an excellent performance from this film's Anita, who is played by Ariana DeBose. DeBose has such charisma, and uses this with great aplomb all throughout the film. She embodies Anita's outgoing, almost brash personality so nicely, and is a joy to watch. I was also impressed by Mike Faist's work here, as he brings some emotional depth to the character of Riff, and makes him more of a fully realized character. David Alvarez is also quite good as Bernardo, and you can feel just how dialed in he is every time he appears. The weakest link in this cast is easily Ansel Elgort, but it's not for lack of effort. It is simply due to the rest of the cast outshining him at every turn. He is a decent singer, and even his acting isn't half bad, but compared to the others, he falls short. On the flipside of things, if anyone deserves to breakout from this cast, it's Rachel Zegler. The fact that this is her first movie is incredible, as she has such raw talent. Her singing is flawless, and she is able to play the naïveté of Maria so well, while still shining in the character's bolder moments. This is practically the textbook definition of a star-making performance, and I hope that we will see more of her in the future.
I was not expecting to be as enthusiastic about this film as I am. While I love Spielberg and the original musical quite a bit, I still had my doubts over whether or not this film would be any good. This film greatly exceeded my expectations, and is a beautiful, poignant, and pertinent re-telling of one of the most well-loved musicals ever written. This is a must-see for anyone, and shows that Spielberg still has it in him as a filmmaker. It is an incredible feat of filmmaking, and easily one of the best musicals of the past several years, if not the past several decades.