There are two things that Steven Spielberg has wanted to do for the longest time: direct a musical and direct a James Bond picture. Raiders of the Lost Ark seemingly filled the 007 void. Spielberg’s musical aspirations were on full display in the intro to Temple of Doom. It’s taken him over sixty years in the business to finally direct his grand musical, however. West Side Story demands a filmmaker who can balance whimsy with harsh reality. With the 1961 Best Picture winner, Jerome Robbins delivered the whimsy while Robert Wise injected the realism. Steven Spielberg is well suited to bring both elements, having started his career with more sentiment works before taking a grittier turn.
Nevertheless, West Side Story still felt like an odd choice for Spielberg to adapt. Wise and Robbins turned in a practically perfect film. Granted, there was room for more representation, hence the practically. Of course, a more diverse cast doesn’t automatically justify a remake’s existence. Just look at 2019’s The Lion King. Unlike that soulless cash-grab, Spielberg doesn’t just copy and paste the first film. Yeah, it’s the same story with the same songs and mostly the same characters. Through Spielberg’s lens, though, the classic musical springs back to life in innovative and unexpected ways.
From the opening number, Spielberg establishes that he isn’t going to borrow every note from Wise and Robbins’ playbook. There are certainly homages to the original film, including a wonderful supporting performance from Rita Moreno as a new character named Valentina. Spielberg’s approach to the source material has a distinct signature, though. Every shot feels fresh, every dance move is invigorating, and every set piece puts an original spin on what we’ve come to expect. Why sing America on a confined balcony when you can turn the streets of New York into a ballroom? Speaking of which, even New York feels like a different urban playground. The 1961 film’s version of New York existed somewhere between the stage and cinema. Spielberg’s New York feels more alive with countless extras adorning the backgrounds.
Between Janusz Kamiński’s sweeping cinematography and Adam Stockhausen’s towering production design, West Side Story rivals Dune for 2021’s most visually interesting picture. The cast gives the film a beating heart, however. Ansel Elgort paints Tony as a troubled young man who, as hard as he tries, can’t escape gang life. In a stunning debut, Rachel Zegler develops Maria from a wide-eyed innocent to a rational yet hopeful woman trying to take control of her life. Mike Faist’s Riff feels more layered than ever before. He isn’t just fighting for territory, but desperately holding onto the only world he’s ever known. He’d much sooner die on the streets than surrender his crumbling kingdom. Ariana DeBose lights up the screen with Anita’s fiery passion while David Alvarez burns with Bernardo’s razor-sharp intensity. And yes, the fact the Sharks are all played by actors of Latinx descent deserves recognition.
Is Spielberg’s West Side Story better than the original? It may take several rewatches to make an informed decision. However, the fact that this West Side Story stacks up at all is a testament to Spielberg’s direction, Justin Peck’s choreography, and the ensemble. More importantly, Spielberg’s film stands on its own with a unique aesthetic, but a timeless romance set to unforgettable music underneath. Considering that gang violence and racial tensions are even more relevant now than they were in 1961, West Side Story has aged better than even its creators likely envisioned. In that sense, perhaps a remake of West Side Story was more essential than we initially thought.