Steven Spielberg did magic with sharks before.
The Oscar-winning director makes a musical movie for the first time. And he doesn’t disappoint – even when taking on an influential all-timer like “West Side Story” (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Dec. 10). With outstanding performances from newcomer Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose, Spielberg’s take doesn’t stray too far from the original 1957 “Romeo & Juliet”-inspired Broadway musical or the 1961 best picture winning-film, but is rather a more authentic, dynamic and thoughtful revamp.
In addition to bringing back OG movie star Rita Moreno, this new “Story” deals with problems of representation from past efforts, redefines characters, puts that Spielbergian blockbuster spin on legendary musical numbers, and gives needed sociopolitical context to the central conflict, one that spawns both true love and tragedy.
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In New York City circa 1957, the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks are rival street gangs fighting for what’s left of their diminishing turf as slums are cleared and Manhattan’s West Side is built up. Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist) wants an all-out rumble against Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his men, but Riff’s friend Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jet who just served a year in prison, wants to work at the local drug store and stay out of trouble.
“I’m scared of myself, Riff,” Tony tells his old pal.
Tony goes to the dance at the gym where Jets, Sharks and Bernardo’s fiery love Anita (DeBose) take out their aggression via mambo. It’s there Tony locks eyes with Bernardo’s sister Maria (Zegler), and the two instantly fall for each other – though Maria’solder brother Bernardo insists she not see him. Tony and Maria meet secretly on fire escapes and wherever they can to hide their budding relationship, which is threatened as opposing factions approach a violent and inevitable collision.
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Tony winner Tony Kushner’s new screenplay brings more life to the cast of personalities outside of its young lovers, though Elgort’s Tony gets a welcome backstory. The Sharks especially are a focal point for the update: Bernardo is a rising prizefighter trying to keep Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), a friend going to night school and his preferred beau for Maria, away from gang fights. Whereas many of the Puerto Rican characters in the ’61 movie were played by white actors (most famously Natalie Wood’s Maria), Spielberg specifically cast Latino performers as their 2021 counterparts, who speak Spanish to each other frequently. Another nice touch is that English-speaking viewers will still get the main idea, even without subtitles.
Spielberg wonderfully uses shadow and light to lend added drama to the dance-fight throwdowns, and a kaleidoscope of stained-glass colors give a holy feel to Tony and Maria’s “One Hand, One Heart” duet. Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are as vibrant and vital as ever in the new film: The phenomenal and joyful “America,” with DeBose and Co. hoofing their way through the streets of San Juan Hill, is why you pair a legend like Spielberg with quintessential material.
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And while a couple of famous numbers don’t quite fit tonally, others more than do their part: Moreno, the original film’s Anita who plays Tony’s boss/maternal figure Valentina in the new movie, will give you chills singing “Somewhere,” and DeBose and Zegler are emotional powerhouses in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.”
Zegler’s a magnetic Maria in her Hollywood debut – it’s not just a star-making turn, but the kind that could inspire a new generation of musical-theater nerds. Although she’s the heart, DeBose is the soul of this “West Side Story”: A “Hamilton” alum who impressed in last year’s “The Prom,” she digs deep to make Anita the most complex character of all, going from hopeful optimism in the first act to righteous anger and fury by the second.
Spielberg brings together the Anitas in one scene, with Moreno (and DeBose) that is both key and knowing. The director’s been around the block enough to not mess with greatness, instead touching up the paint on a classic narrative and leaning into a love story as relevant as ever.