‘West Side Story’ Review: Steven Spielberg Celebrates and Updates an American Classic

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner clearly respect what’s come before, but they’re not afraid to tinker with it, and the results are electrifying

West Side Story
"West Side Story" – Niko Tavernise/20th Century

Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner neither demolish nor copy the classic 1961 musical “West Side Story”: They give the venerable property a new paint job, secure a few walls, move a few windows and ultimately build their own edifice from the legendary Broadway musical, one that will likely satisfy the original’s admirers and detractors alike while also welcoming newcomers to the material.

There are few shows in the history of the American musical theater with as strong a pedigree; Leonard Bernstein’s score, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, Arthur Laurents’ book, and Jerome Robbins’ choreography have withstood the test of time, not to mention countless Broadway revivals and high school productions.

Spielberg and Kushner clearly revere that history, but they’re also not intimidated by it; there are any number of instances where viewers can point to this song placement or that bit of character backstory as a new idea that the two have brought to the property, but this is a take on “West Side Story” that’s both reverent and exciting.

The film opens with an overhead shot of rubble, the bricks of destroyed buildings lying under a tangled labyrinth of downed fire escapes. This war zone was created not by enemy bombers but by wrecking balls, clearing out New York City’s slums in the late 1950s, erasing acres to make way for the Lincoln Center performing arts complex and block after block of high-rise apartments that the neighborhood’s current residents will not be able to afford.

And even with the neighborhood itself disappearing, those current residents are at war for control of the terrain, with the Sharks (made up of Puerto Rican newcomers to the city) constantly at odds with the Jets (a gang of teenagers whose parents emigrated from Ireland, Italy or Poland, thus offering a quick history of which nationalities didn’t, and then did, get to call themselves “white” in 20th-century America).

As Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez, “American Rust”) faces off with Jets chieftain Riff (Mike Faist, Amazon Prime’s “Panic”), Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) falls madly in love with Tony (Ansel Elgort), Riff’s best friend who’s trying to get away from his violent, criminal past as a Jet. It’s a story you know, with Laurents already taking cues from “Romeo and Juliet,” but Kushner throws in some dialogue here, some backstory there, to enhance and deepen these characters, from his leads (in this version, Tony has just gotten out of prison for almost killing a rival gang member) to secondary characters like racist cop Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll), Maria’s would-be suitor, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), and Jet-wannabe Anybodys (Iris Menas), a character once classified as a “tomboy” who’s now more clearly presented as nonbinary or trans (inasmuch as anyone in 1950s America could declare themselves as such).

Purists are already balking about how the songs have been rearranged, recontextualized and reassigned in this version, but the changes all work fairly smoothly in their new placement. The highlight of the film is probably “America,” moved from a nighttime rooftop to the streets of New York in broad daylight, giving Anita (Ariana DeBose, “Prom” – the film’s MVP) and the other female dancers the literal real estate to strut their stuff in the middle of the road in a way that was previously reserved for the warring gangs. (Choreographer Justin Peck skillfully updates and augments the original choreography by Robbins, who shared director credit with Robert Wise on the previous film version.)

Rita Moreno, DeBose’s Oscar-winning onscreen predecessor in the role, returns as Valentina, the widow who runs Doc’s drugstore, and is the film’s one character who’s sympathetic to both sides of the turf war. Spielberg wisely gives her plenty to do (this isn’t a gimmicky cameo), and she blends perfectly with the ensemble, most of whom are stage vets making their screen debut. DeBose and Alvarez bring real passion to Anita and Bernardo’s tempestuous relationship, and Zegler knows how hit the heart-stabbing emotions of “I Have a Love.”

If there’s a weak link here, it’s Elgort, whose performance more often than not resembles Val Kilmer’s Elvis parody in “Top Secret!” yet seemingly without the self-awareness. Still, the 1961 version didn’t live or die on the raw charisma of Richard Beymer, so even if the best moments of this “West Side Story” are the ones where Elgort is off-screen, his presence isn’t enough to undo the film’s many qualities.

Foremost among those is the work of Spielberg’s preferred cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. Between shooting the streets of New York with anamorphic angles you didn’t think they made anymore to finding a color palette that perfectly captures the way Technicolor and Kodachrome made us all remember the 1950s, Kamiski gives the film an old-Hollywood look that also feels fresh and dynamic. Casting director Cindy Tolan (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) populates the film with period-appropriate faces; watching the Jets huddle is like looking at a shot from an old Life magazine.

Over the course of a long and often distinguished career, Spielberg has offered clues that he was willing and able to make a musical, from the breathless jitterbug sequence in “1941” to Kate Capshaw crooning “Anything Goes” (in Mandarin) with a kick-line of tap-dancing chorus girls in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” He’s finally gotten to apply his know-how to one of the great musicals of all time, and the dare has paid off. Contemporary filmmakers who embrace the genre but who hide their lack of expertise behind excessive editing and auto-tuning have just had a gauntlet thrown down.

“West Side Story” opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 10.