Steven Spielberg has previously dabbled in the visual rhythms of musical theater — see the opening of Temple of Doom for a prime example — but has never made a full fledged musical. His adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s classic stage musical, which was famously adapted to the big-screen in 1961 by Jerome Roberts and Robert Wise, is not only the legendary filmmaker’s first musical, but it’s also his most emotionally urgent and spectacularly helmed film in over a decade
It’s the 1950’s and tensions are high for rivaling gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are seeing their usual terrain of NYC slowly fade as construction takes away old memories and hopes to build a new future. The Sharks, a gang of young Puerto Rican men just looking to find opportunity in America. Both gangs hate each other, and seek to get the other gang off their turf for good. Maria, (newcomer Rachel Zegler) is the sister to Bernardo (David Alvarez), the head of the Sharks, who falls in love with Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former member of the Sharks just released from prison and wanting to stay out of trouble. Of course, trouble follows when Bernardo and Riff, (Mike Faist) Tony’s best friend and the head of the Jets founds out about their love affair, sparking even more of a rivalry. Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (former Hamilton cast member Ariana DeBose) has dreams of her own and wants Bernardo to leave his gang life behind.
Right off the bat, Spielberg’s take on West Side Story has more grit and joyful energy that coincide with one another gracefully. Paired with his usual DP Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s new vision of dynamically shot and bursting at the seams with life. Kaminski’s detailed, intricate cinematography has the kind of sweeping scale that’s been missing from most modern musicals. Spielberg takes Sondheim’s original production and gives it a larger-than-life cinematic treatment full of breathtaking compositions. For much of the runtime, there’s one show-stopping musical number after another, to the point where Spielbergian magic feels like it comes at an endless pace. The choreography has the expressionism found in the original musical, but is more refined and natural to Spielberg’s tone.
The ensemble cast is ripe with flair and and energetic personalities. In the classic role of Maria, Rachel Zegler is a true breakthrough. Her performance as Maria is the kind of star-making performance rarely seen of this magnitude. With a face that can embody an ocean of nuance and an angelic voice that could melt steel, Zegler makes her mark as a bonafide movie star. Ariana DeBose, as Anita, has a vivid charisma that practically leaps off the screen. DeBose has a vibrancy to her screen presence, one that makes her exciting to watch. DeBose’s portrayal of Anita’s ferocity is always commanding and the character is given more dimension than in previous incarnations. Mike Faist and David Alvarez are strong additions to the cast, and Rita Moreno — who previously won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1962 screen adaptation, adds a soulfulness to the ensemble as an original character.
The biggest weak link in not just the cast, but the film, overall is star Ansel Elgort. While the actor has been quite charismatic in past works such as The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver, Elgort’s presence is a black hole where charisma and charm are usually found. He does well enough in the musical numbers, but is stiff in the dramatic beats. This is even without the stain of his past allegations of predatory behavior that occasionally linger over his wooden performance. When the Romeo and Juliet-inspired story reaches its tragic conclusion, the emotional impact is undeniably hindered by the star’s lack of chemistry with Rachel Zegler — who really gives it everything she’s got.
Even if West Side Story runs out of steam before the final act, it’s still a show-stopping, luminous feat of cinematic prowess. This is a spectacular new update of the late, Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical and features some of Steven Spielberg’s best filmmaking in over a decade.