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Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' will make you believe in movies again

Ariana DeBose (center) is Anita in <em>West Side Story.</em>
20th Century Studios
Ariana DeBose (center) is Anita in West Side Story.

A lot of us had our doubts when we heard that Steven Spielbergwould be directing a new version of West Side Story, and not just because of Hollywood remake fatigue. In the decades since it first appeared on Broadway in 1957, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired story of two warring New York street gangs has generated more than its share of criticism, especially over the writing and the casting of its Puerto Rican characters. Even the beloved 1961 movie inspires groans now for having cast Natalie Wood in the lead role of María, and for forcing Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the cast, to wear dark brown makeup as Anita.

Sixty years later, Moreno is an executive producer on Spielberg's West Side Story. She also gives a poignant performance in the new role of Valentina, the widow of Doc, the drugstore owner. By her presence, Moreno teaches us how to approach this movie, as both an affectionate tribute and a gentle corrective.

Spielberg and his regular screenwriter of late, the playwright Tony Kushner, give us a tougher, grimier vision of the Upper West Side in the 1950s. We see the working-class neighborhood of San Juan Hill, home to mostly Black and Latino residents, being demolished to make way for new developments like Lincoln Center. There's a heightened sense of hostility between the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks and their white rivals, the Jets, and their rumbles are startlingly violent.

Adding to the realism is the fact that the Sharks are played by actors of Latino descent. They include David Alvarez as Bernardo, the brash leader of the Sharks, and Ariana DeBose as his girlfriend, Anita. Both actors are superb, as is Rachel Zegler, making a fine screen debut as Bernardo's little sister, María.

The story hasn't changed: María falls into an ill-fated romance with Tony, a former member of the Jets, played by Ansel Elgort. Early in the film, the two meet surreptitiously on María's fire escape, singing "Tonight," one of the many classic Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim songs gloriously revived in the movie.

What's remarkable about this and the other numbers is how brilliantly Spielberg directs them. West Side Story is the first musical he's ever made, but it's no surprise that he's a natural at it: Few other American filmmakers have a more instinctive sense of rhythm and visual flow, or more direct access to your emotions.

Spielberg stages the numbers like an old-school Hollywood classicist, with none of the overly jumpy editing that might distract from the dancing. When the Jets and the Sharks meet up at a school dance, their clashing tempers and bodies pull you in with an almost physical force. And when Anita and Bernardo sing "America," their rousing song about the pleasures and perils of assimilation, the scene builds from a domestic squabble to a joyous party in the streets, which Spielberg shoots in a vibrant whirl of color and movement.

The Tony-winning choreographer Justin Peck wrings some clever variations on Jerome Robbins' original dance moves, whether it's the Jets wreaking havoc in a police station house during their big comic-relief number, "Gee, Officer Krupke," or Tony and his friends tossing around a pistol during a tense performance of the song "Cool."

Speaking of Tony's friends: As Riff, the leader of the Jets, Mike Faist gives one of the movie's standout performances. The weak link in the cast is Elgort: He can sing and dance, but there's an emotional flatness to his acting that doesn't quite gel with the much livelier Zegler.

Spielberg can't solve everything that's creaky and dated about West Side Story as a text. But he knows that the show still has something resonant to say about racism and violence in any era, including ours. The reason the movie works so well stems, I think, from a curious paradox: This West Side Story may be grittier and more realistic than the original movie, but it also feels more thrillingly old-fashioned than anything a Hollywood studio has released in ages.

By the end, I wasn't moved so much by Tony and María's sweet, somewhat drippy romance or the fatalistic drama between the Jets and the Sharks. I was moved by Spielberg's conviction, his sheer faith in the transporting power of movies. For two-and-a-half hours, he makes you a believer again.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.