West Side Story Is A Dazzling, Euphoric Musical That Seamlessly Blends Style With Realism, Film Companion

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Ana Isabelle, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James and Rita Moreno
Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski
Editor: Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn

Gentrification, immigration, ambition, race, class, identity, love, violence, friendship, family, tragedy, spectacular set-piece song and dance numbers – it’s almost too much for one film to contain. And yet Steven Spielberg, working with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, who the New York Times described as “America’s most important living playwright”, and with Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, pulls it off. The 74-year-old director weaves the myriad threads into a dazzling, euphoric musical, which soars but never unhinges itself from the grim truths it speaks of.

The story isn’t new. Sixty years ago, directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins made West Side Story, which was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 10 of them. The Broadway musical with a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, which the film was based on, premiered in 1957. And the source material is even older – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which here is transposed to Manhattan in the mid-50s. And yet this tale of star-crossed lovers resonates just as strongly. When Valentina, a character who has been added to this version, sings, ‘We’ll find a new way of living, a way of forgiving,’ her lament hits hard. The swoony romance never obscures the sting in the story.

Valentina, played by a superb Rita Moreno who won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the original film, is one among several updates Spielberg and Kushner make to the film. The casting mistakes of the first version, which had white actors playing Puerto Ricans, have been corrected. Kushner has also revised Arthur Laurents’s original book. This film begins with decrepit and half-destroyed buildings in the Upper West Side in 1958. Shabby tenements are being bulldozed to make way for the spiffy Lincoln Center. Here the Jets, a gang described by a police officer as the last of the can’t-make-it-Caucasians, go up against the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants who are desperately chasing the good life. The Sharks are led by Bernardo and the Jets by Riff. When Bernardo’s 18-year-old sister Maria and Riff’s closest friend Tony fall in love, we know that it can’t end well but until it lasts, their romance is a thing of glory.

They meet at a dance. Eyes lock across the floor and they move toward each other as though guided by some other-worldly gravitational pull. He sees her first but she leans in for a kiss first. Tony wants to be a better man. He has just come out of prison and now works at Valentina’s drug store. He knows what he’s capable of and wants, at all costs, to avoid trouble again. He even tries to keep his friends from fighting. But these young men are caught in a toxic cycle of violence, a lack of opportunity and education, and free-flowing hate. Their circumscribed lives find release in knocking down others – namely the immigrants.

West Side Story asks us to consider who is an outsider and what is home. One of the most memorable characters in the film is Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, played by the brilliant Ariana DeBose. Anita is sexy, strong and wise. Her moves on the dance floor are mesmerizing but her sparkle dims through the film and by the end, she has been thoroughly brutalized. David Alvarez as Bernardo and Mike Faist as Riff also deliver strong performances. Faist gives Riff an intelligence that alludes to the life this young man might have had if his circumstances were different. And at the center of the swirling emotion and action are Ansel Elgort as Tony and debutant Rachel Zegler as Maria. He doesn’t pop off the screen like she does, but both bring a lovely artlessness to their roles. Despite the odds, you desperately want Tony and Maria to live happily ever after.

Spielberg and Kaminski seamlessly blend stylization with realism. The choreography by Justin Peck is dynamic and electrifying. Especially the opening number – the film begins with the camera sailing over a demolition site, which renders the turf wars between the Jets and Sharks even more tragic. What they are fighting for has already been reduced to rubble.

Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins first had the idea of transposing Romeo and Juliet to New York. And all these decades later, West Side Story continues to enthrall.

You can watch the film at a theatre near you. Don’t forget to wear a mask.

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