“What’s a gang without its terrain.”
Steven Spielberg has created some of the most iconic and timeless classics of the last fifty years. Yet, he has never directed a musical. The remake of 1961’s West Side Story changes that, allowing the famed director to further cement his name within the confines of Hollywood’s most versatile architects.
Set in the mid-1950s in the Upper West Side of New York City, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired story explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. In a blue-collar neighborhood experiencing a phase of transition, tension is high as the groups walk the streets to exude dominance in an attempt to control the vastly changing territory.
The opening number, an iconic scene, sets the stage as we navigate the debris and construction, watching as the Jets strut through the streets, paint cans in hands. The target? A mural of the Puerto Rican flag, a symbol of the Sharks.
Sidestepping and snapping to the beat, the group encounters little opposition. As parentless teens with no place to go, they appear to run the city, store owners and pedestrians scattering in fear and frustration. That is until the Sharks catch wind, racing to prevent the heinous act against their heritage.
The film starts slow. Setting the stage takes time, and though many are familiar with the story, there is a lot to get through. However, Spielberg doesn’t force things, allowing the song and dance to speak for themselves as we are introduced to Riff and Bernardo, the leads of the Jets and Sharks, respectively. Their toe-to-toe antics preserve the tone of the original; however painful it is to sit through today.
But Spielberg works to charm audiences, maintaining the visual aesthetics of Old Hollywood while preserving the classic musical as he shares a story set in a particular place at a particular time.
Ansel Elgort stars as Tony, a former Jet who has just spent a year in prison for beating a man within a punch of his life. Attempting to get on the right path, he’s left the street gang, working at Doc’s under the watchful eye of Valentina (played by the beautifully talented Rita Moreno, Anita from the original film). Though his voice is fine, Elgort struggles to connect, showing little emotion throughout. Even during a mesmerizingly choreographed “Tonight’ on a locked fire escape, he struggles to display much beyond a casual smirk as he professes his love to María, Bernardo’s younger sister.
In her big-screen debut, Rachel Zegler is nearly impeccable, bringing the delicate and stunning María to life. Her charisma and charm are undeniable as she swoons around her small apartment, love in her eye after a single kiss at the school dance. With Zegler, we can connect as she brings us along for a ride blinded by love. She yearns for Tony, and though Tony says he feels the same for her, he leaves much to be desired.
Together the pair works, at least mostly. Ariana DeBose also delivers a remarkable performance as Anita, giving us a boost of energy and personality when we need it most. That is what works best about West Side Story. Big and grand in all the right places, it bears the feeling of a stage production with the flexibility and grandness of a cinematic experience. It merges two languages with flawless precision, providing a perfect photograph of New York City.
Tony attempts to diffuse a situation when the two street gangs meet in a salt shed, set on a rumbling to determine which group will run the neighborhood. For the sake of his love for María, the Jets and Sharks must get along. But a heated exchange (along with a pair of knives) leads to a deadly brawl that is as iconic as the opening sequence.
The fallout is emotional, but what musical doesn’t overindulge in the dramatics. It’s part of the territory, and Spielberg leans in with a heavy hand. I don’t blame him—part of what makes West Side Story timeless rests within that pivotal third act. While remakes aren’t my favorite, I can’t deny this one works, and Spielberg has once again proving our concerns unwarranted.