We have a tendency to accept something as a classic without really asking what makes it a classic in the first place. It's a title we give something - usually something old and usually something a bunch of (usually male) academics tell us is important. This is why reinterpreting a classic is necessary. It's an opportunity to reengage with it and come to a better understanding of why it persists. 'West Side Story', the 1957 musical, with music by legendary composer Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the great genius Stephen Sondheim, is without question a classic, but one no less deserving of interrogation. It is in this spirit that one of the greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg, has dared to attempt his own interpretation of the musical, one whose shadow is still as imposing more than 60 years later.
As the neighbourhoods of New York's west side are demolished for redevelopment in 1957, two rival gangs battle for dominance over the streets. The Jets, an aimless group of young men descended from Irish immigrants led by combustible vagrant Riff (Mike Faist), spend their days provoking the Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants led by the equally combustible Bernardo (David Alvarez). The conflict between the two gangs is reaching breaking point, and it is at this moment where Bernardo's sister Anita (Rachel Zegler) meets Riff's best friend and ex-Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort, 'Baby Driver') and the two fall madly in love. Almost immediately, their meeting becomes the spark that ignites the conflict between the gangs into a fury, and the two lovers are forced to choose between their families and each other - with devastating consequences.
'West Side Story' is one of the true masterpieces of both the American stage (with its original 1957 production) and American cinema (with the Oscar-winning 1961 film), so the pressure on both Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner ('Munich', 'Lincoln') was enormous. Many already saw the 1961 film as the definitive screen adaptation, so any attempt to re-adapt the musical needed to justify itself. This new 'West Side Story', crafted with jaw-dropping precision and intensity, does so from the moment it begins. Kushner's screenplay turns to two important sources - the original Shakespearean text of 'Romeo and Juliet' and the historical context of New York's west side districts in the late 1950s. With the former, he finds a blueprint for making the iconic characters of the musical even richer and more complex - and with the latter, an immediate and powerful context for the battle of class, race and gender at the heart of the work.
This provides the foundation on which Spielberg can construct the film, one he has been dreaming of making his entire career. And it's clear, from the very first frame, just how potent that dream is and how fiercely he intends to pursue it. There's a sense that, in many ways, his career has been leading carefully to this point, the filmmaker sharpening his skills and preparing him to take on a piece of truly gigantic material - and the results are overwhelming. Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' is incredible; a bolt of pure lightning, a symphony of the senses, and an assault on the heart. There are moments where I found myself unable to breathe, staring in wide-eyed awe at the screen, tears streaming from my eyes in ecstasy. Perhaps the months in lockdown and away from the cinemas hasn't helped, but I cannot remember the last time a film left me this pulverised, this exhilarated, this alive.
'West Side Story' is often talked about as a doomed romance, and the magnificent 1961 film certainly presents it as such, but Spielberg and Kushner fashion the tale into an altogether more powerful story of home, safety and belonging. There's a time pressure throughout the film, with the knowledge that this neighbourhood is mere months from being wiped away and all the stories and culture it houses along with it. The battle between the Jets and the Sharks feels all the more potent and all the more helpless. The Jets are still boys, abandoned by their families and discarded by society, wiry and broken, like starving rats in a box fighting for dominance. Their need to own the streets is not just about power, but about knowing where they belong while the world crashes down around them. Their whole identity is in each other, and without the identity of the Jets, they don't exist. This is what motivates Riff, now an unsettling, dangerous, terrified child trying desperately to be a man. By contrast, the Sharks have family and belonging, but they have been hard won. They have come to a country with promises of freedom and prosperity but found themselves reduced to second-class citizens, mocked and attacked and dismissed. If they give up what is left of their neighbourhood to these kids, they lose what little they have gained. It makes sense that the film makes Bernardo a boxer, giving context to his intense need to fight and protect his family and his community. The danger is that, for the Jets, the battle with the Sharks is a game, boys playing at war, and it isn't until it's too late that they realise that the Sharks aren't boys but men, rough hewn through adversity, and they aren't playing a game.
That need to know your place in the world is also what motivates Tony in his pursuit of Maria. There's an inherent issue with both 'West Side Story' and 'Romeo and Juliet' of love at first sight, but here, a backstory of Tony having spent time in prison and a desire to set a new path for himself gives reason for his instant infatuation with Maria. He is seeking something true and meaningful, a way out of the hole he has landed himself in, and Maria, with her honesty and self-awareness, sees Tony in a way others do not. And it isn't an infatuation without its issues - he is still not of her community and cannot fully understand their lived experience. Tony thinks he is the romantic lead of a romantic drama, without realising that the kind of romance he's pursuing doesn't exist in this world. His love for Maria is pure, but he never interrogates where it may stem from, and this ultimately leads to the terrible circumstances he finds himself in.
What is fundamental to 'West Side Story' is that, in the end, Maria is the protagonist, just as Juliet is in 'Romeo and Juliet'. She alone exists outside of the central conflict, and has the intelligence, foresight and maturity to understand its complexities. The tragedy of 'West Side Story' is seeing how the selfishness of the men around her - including Tony - shatter her dreams and her innocence, but she goddamn fights to protect them. Maria in the original work was always a fascinating character, but in this new adaptation, she becomes even more of a powerhouse, here the emotional lynchpin on which the entire narrative functions. Her love of Tony is with an understanding of its complexities and of its swiftness, careful consideration of the consequences and how it will affect those around her.
It's not to say that this thematic complexity has been added to 'West Side Story' by Spielberg and Kushner, but by re-examining this foundational text, they have found new questions, new ideas, new resonances within it. There was never any question that Spielberg would direct the hell out of it (and he directs the hell out of it), but a new adaptation needs to offer something new; a fresh understanding or perspective on a story we know so well. Greta Gerwig did so with her magnificent 'Little Women' (2018), and Spielberg does so here with 'West Side Story'. There will inevitably be debate over which is better - the 1961 film or the 2021 film - but that kind of question cheapens the integrity of both. They are simply two different (and two magnificent) adaptations of 'West Side Story', offering two different (and two magnificent) experiences. One is the story of star-crossed lovers in the middle of a war, while the other is the story of a war in which star-crossed lovers have their hearts pulled apart at the seams.
Spielberg has been wanting to direct a musical since the beginning of his career, making this the rare opportunity to see the legendary director attempting something for the first time, and of course, he knocks it out of the goddamn ballpark. In my reviews for 'In The Heights' and 'Dear Evan Hansen', I discussed how integral it is for a film musical to be in harmony with its music, and in those two films, the harmony was either slightly off or completely out of balance. Rhythm and musicality have always been hallmarks of Spielberg's directorial craft, and here he utilises his inherent musicality like a weapon. The thrill of his 'West Side Story' is in that sublime harmony, a camera listening to the music, knowing when to move and how - as well as when not to move - when Leonard Bernstein's monolithic score is working against the emotional heart of a scene. Every musical number is a spectacle, building expertly on the last, and as each begins (especially the jaw-dropping 'Dance at the Gym' and the show-stopping 'America'), you can feel the film literally humming with anticipation. And when those numbers hit, where the music blasts through the speakers with David Newman's imaginative orchestrations and Gustavo Dudamel's powerhouse conducting, and the bodies on screen begin to move, the film explodes in ecstatic revelry. You don't know whether to gasp or to cheer.
Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' is incredible, a bolt of pure lightning, a symphony of the senses and an assault on the heart.
'West Side Story' is a film where every single person involved is at the top of their game. Adam Stockhausen's production design is gigantic, crafting an urban jungle of tenement houses and decimated city blocks, bursting with grit and grime and colour and beauty. Paul Tazewell's costume designs are sumptuous and detailed, each an essay on the character inhabiting them. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski pulls out all the stops with the movement of his camera, able to render 'West Side Story' as both epic and intimate all at once, and shaped by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar's razor-sharp editing. Choreographer Justin Peck had the impossible task of creating a new choreography in the shadow of original director Jerome Robbins, but his muscular, bombastic choreography is both a beautiful compliment and contrast to Robbins' original. And at the heart of it all is Spielberg himself, as gleeful and imaginative and exacting as ever, able to balance his legendary skill with blocking, movement and texture with the overwhelming joy at bringing his dream project to life.
For the cast, Spielberg wisely went with mostly unknowns, and with the exception of the awkwardly miscast Ansel Elgort as Tony, the cast is spectacular across the board. Mike Faist as Riff pulsates with nervous, dangerous energy, contrasted beautifully with David Alvarez's intoxicating masculine control as Bernardo. 'West Side Story' would be nothing without a scene-stealing Anita, Maria's protector and Bernardo's partner, and Ariana DeBose ('Hamilton') steals the film from the moment she appears, a fiery and insatiable passion giving way to crushing sorrow. The original 1961 Anita, Rita Moreno, comes to this 'West Side Story' as Valentina, a store owner who takes Tony in, a witness to the endless devastation of this never-ending racial feud, and her deep sadness makes Moreno's performance one of the film's finest. Leading the charge though is the astonishing performance from Rachel Zegler as Maria. She owns every moment she is on screen, rising from innocence to the powerhouse, becoming beating heart of 'West Side Story'. Her voice is divine, but it is her intelligence and passion as a performer in all moments of the film that leaves you breathless. This is an emerging young actor walking into the room, throwing down the gauntlet and walking away with the knowledge that they just delivered a performance for the ages.
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the casting though is its care. Spielberg was determined that any character of Puerto Rican or Latin descent needed to be played by a Latino or Latina actor, and rather than this being token, it becomes vital to the film's integrity. They bring their lived experience and the experiences of their family and community to the film, and Spielberg's decision to not subtitle whole scenes spoken in Spanish is inspired and powerful. The same care extends to the character of Anybodys, a tomboy in the original now refashioned as a trans character and performed by transmasculine non-binary actor iris menas, but rather than this being a tokenistic gesture, Spielberg, Kushner and menas ensure that Anybodys' trans experience becomes integral to the thematic fabric of the film. And this becomes the more important aspect of Spielberg's 'West Side Story' - the fact that, despite the dancing in the street and the bursting into song and all the traditional, sentimental tropes of both his work and the musical form, the film is built on a foundation of integrity. It means something, these stories mean something, for everyone within its canvas. And as the film hurtles towards its final act, as the walls close in and the music dies away and the inevitable tragedy plays out before us, the film builds to an almost claustrophobic intensity, where each devastating blow hits harder and harder at your heart. Because, in the end, 'West Side Story' is a tragedy, where blood will run in the streets and tears will run down innocent faces, and when the battle is over, no one is left to win. Spielberg begins his film on a literal image of destruction and finishes with an image of emotional destruction, just as potent and as crushing.
In the days since seeing 'West Side Story', its many sublime moments have played over and over in my head, causing my heart to beat faster, a smile bursting on my face. It isn't a perfect film, there are certainly moments that don't entirely work and decisions that don't pay off, but what matters is its overall impact - and that impact had me standing on the street afterwards crying and laughing from the overwhelming enormity of it. I had high expectations for this film - impossibly high - and my god, it actually met them. What Steven Spielberg has done with 'West Side Story' is exactly what a great adaptation should do: strip away the cobwebs of a classic, dig deep into the questions it poses, and remind us why we love it in the first place. It sits as a perfect companion to the 1961 film, offering a reminder of the power of art to connect to the human experience in ways that move us, devastate us and amaze us. 'West Side Story' is a revelation, a marvel, and is without question my favourite film of the year. It might even be a masterpiece.