On the mean streets of 1950’s New York City, among the roving groups of dancing and snapping street gangs, prolific all-timer Steven Spielberg finds his paradise. Unlike a majority of his later day works, which mostly placed the director near the self-serious area of filmmaking (ie THE POST, LINCOLN, BRIDGE OF SPIES), WEST SIDE STORY, the latest stab at adapting Arthur Laurents’ stage play, allows the filmmaker to let loose in the energetic realm of cinematic musicals. Taking on a work that has already found success on the stage and on cinema screens years ago, Spielberg still manages to shake out some awe-inspiring magic from these well worn streets.
From its opening eye-of-God establishing shot displaying a NYC neighborhood on the verge of early gentrification, Spielberg, backed by the timeless musical themes of Leonard Bernstein, gracefully deposits viewers into the bright and beautiful concrete battlegrounds held between the primarily Irish Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks. The story (here adapted by Tony Kushner) follows the same beats as earlier interpretations — which in general follow the tragic trajectory of those star-crossed lovers found in Romeo & Juliet — as we find formerly incarcerated Jet, Tony (Ansel Elgort), falling into a rapidly turbulent romance with the sweet Maria (Rachel Zegler), little sister to Shark leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). Beefs emerge, sweaty and muscley men hash it out through angelic ballets of fists and knives and voguing, and everyone sings, baby! There’s a lot of familiar themes and narrative turns here (outside of one or two pivots that Kushner throws in to keep this adaptation relatively more up to date in this modern times) but in the hands of its maestro, Mr. Spielberg, this interpolation becomes its own grandiose beast.
With a vibrant sheen, this version simultaneously captures the feeling and look of its theatrical stage origins while mixing wonderfully with Spielberg’s cinematic eye which is exquisitely brought to fruition through the consistent partnership with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The world of the Sharks and the Jets expands lushly and as its performers glide and saunter wonderfully across the numerous jaw-dropping musical numbers (such as the amazing dance off that happens in a theatrically lit school gym), Kaminski’s cameras are more than happy (and capable) to keep to their beat. Spielberg once again proves himself to be one of the best directors at creating massive canvasses that efficiently and better yet, smoothly, pulse with live and movement. Every movement seems to be carefully visualized and executed and every performance and their respective performer hits the right note all the way from its star crossed leads and down to the random single line performer who still hits the mark with passing colors.
Mr. Elgort and Ms. Zegler certainly look the parts of two kids throwing themselves (and everyone around them) recklessly into young love but of the two, it’s Zegler who puts on a show, capably eliciting believable emotion through both her singing chops and general scenes of dialogue. To his credit, Elgort certainly holds his own in a few of his own solo songs, but it’s clear that Zegler seems to be having more fun, which could be due to the way the story frames Maria as the more easy-going member of the duo, while Tony plays as an overall self-serious kid looking to right his wrongs. However, it’s the supporting characters who end up stealing the spotlight, particularly in regards to Mike Faist’s charismatically tense role as the Jets leader, Riff, and Ariana DeBose’s memorable take on confident firecracker, Anita. Both of these characters and respective performers play to the strengths of this WEST SIDE STORY rendition, dually pulling out the work’s brimming zest and inescapable air of desperate violence.
In nearly every aspect, WEST SIDE STORY cackles with this energy. However, at about two and a half hours, the film does go through the occasional bout of downtime which, when compared to the highs of Spielberg’s immaculate musical numbers, mark a noticeable dip in entertainment. Even as they hold their own on an individual level in regards to performances, the central relationship between Tony and Maria doesn’t quite carry the “destined love” vibe that the movie pushes as Elgort and Zegler, while sharing a few scenes of cuteness between each other, can’t quite sell their rapid romance which leads to later scenes not always hitting their emotional high marks. As a whole, especially in its later half, WEST SIDE STORY’s grandness allows for some pacing moments to pop up as a few of Spielberg’s shuffling of set pieces, while cool on paper, don’t quite stick the emotional resonance in execution.
Regardless, WEST SIDE STORY was never going to be an abject failure in the hands of a filmmaker like Spielberg. With the old, the acclaimed filmmaker still manages to utilize his magical touch to make a musical about dancing street goons entertaining and awe-inspiring, a feat that should result in some sort of mild worship (or at the very least, an Oscar here or there). Musical fan or not, taking a step on the vibrant and energetic streets of WEST SIDE STORY is a trip you won’t regret (even if you do get stabbed by an oily and prancing dancing thug).