In his West Side Story, Steven Spielberg indulges the new cinematic fetish for teams assembling. Young punks emerge from boxy apartments and trailers and basements. There’s a blissful tracking shot of five toughs strutting down the street, a couple of them skipping out to dance ahead, cans of paint being passed around, all without breaking step. In five minutes of swoop and glide, the film deposits the Jets, a white American gang, in the territory of the Puerto Rican Sharks. Any question about whether Spielberg would be a good fit for a musical is pretty much buried by then.
Did it have to be this musical, though? West Side Story was already a classic of American stage and screen: a 1957 Broadway play, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a 1961 movie by Robert Wise and Robbins. That movie was visibly a stage musical transplanted to screen, but it won 10 Oscars, including best film and director. Its routines are so deeply embedded in US pop culture that any remake would have to be a reinvention.
This is not what we get. It looks different—the bright colours of the original replaced by the subtler tones of Janusz Kaminski. It’s got better actors; the camera and choreography are more mobile. Yet, it’s practically the same film. Spielberg is a far superior craftsman to Wise. But there is a reluctance to change anything fundamental about the source material. The play is essentially Romeo and Juliet in the run-down Upper West Side of New York, a romance between Tony, a Jet who wants to leave the gang life, and Maria, the sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. Spielberg keeps everything—their meeting at a dance, the death at the ‘rumble’, the tragic ending.
It’s of course possible to read into this material an allegory for recent anti-immigrant feeling in the States. The feeling that the Sharks are victims and the Jets are racist thugs is more pronounced than in Wise's film. But any thinking viewer in 1957 or 1961 would have recognized this as the allegory as well. There was nothing like the audible gasps—in an Indian theatre—during the ‘King Kong’ line in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or ‘disarmed’ in The Hateful Eight, thunderously effective nods at modern audiences in period dramas. Tony Kushner is a fine writer (he was responsible for Spielberg’s Munich and Lincoln), but this film could have been made a decade ago without alterating anything.
It’s a wonder the film survives the lack of chemistry between Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort): their first dance is awkward, the first kiss even more awkward. Zegler has an appealing openness but Elgort walks through the film like a smug statue—there’s more heat between Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the Jets, and Bernardo (David Alvarez). The film belongs to these two performers, especially Faist, who makes this paranoid white supremacist oddly sympathetic. Rita Moreno, who played the fiery Anita in the original (a role essayed by the similarly vivacious Ariana DeBose in this film), is Tony’s sympathetic employer. It’s the one significant tweak in the film—a Latinx mentor instead of a white one—but it doesn’t amount to much (besides a likely Oscar nomination for Moreno, who won in 1961).
The film remains a wall-to-wall musical, not one where songs punctuate the narrative. Spielberg and choreographer Justin Peck build the numbers around the elements of the city. Cool is a tense duet on a wooden platform, a large hole drawing the eye even as Riff and Tony avoid it. America starts on a fire escape and ends up literally and figuratively stopping traffic. In the 1961 film, the camera keeps a cool distance during the dance-off between the Sharks and the Jets and their dates. But Spielberg is right among the performers; we feel their energy and their athleticism.
What Spielberg does is masterful. But the lack of challenge to the existing material makes this a timid film. It’s possible to be dazzled by West Side Story and also wonder how much more exciting an original Spielberg musical might have been.
‘West Side Story’ is in theatres.