Movie Review: West Side Story

There's movie magic, and great performances, in the new adaptation of the classic musical.


In reviving “West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner have performed an act of lasting, lingering movie magic.

Along with an army of incredibly skilled collaborators (cinematographer Janusz Kamiński chief among them) and a feverish, frenzied young cast, the legendary director and prolific writer have revitalized and recontextualized the lauded musical for the ’20s. They have also made irresistible, compelling entertainment in the process. Anyfaults “West Side Story” has, and they’re few, do nothing to break the film’s spell.

In Spielberg’s version, musical numbers do not erupt, but rather blossom. When Riff (the excellent Mike Faist) begins rallying his brethren with “Jet Song,” he begins in subtle fashion, singing a line or two quietly; three minutes later, the song has become a riot, with characters conquering the streets with dance and song.

Over and over again, the film follows this rhythm: beginning on a small, intimate scale, stretching out to a place of majestic moviemaking.

At the center of this hurricane is Maria (Rachel Zegler), an emblem of grace and hope in the maelstrom. On paper, “West Side Story” may be the story of Tony (Ansel Elgort), but here, he is merely one of the many elements swirling around his star-crossed lover. While there’s a chance this imbalance is Elgort’s fault — unlike the rest of the young cast, he stumbles under the role’s weight — if his failing gives Zegler more of the focus, so much the better. She’s a commanding artist, dictating the mood of the film around her.

Only one character can manage to fully wrest the spotlight: Valentina, a new addition to the story played by Rita Moreno. Written as a mentor to Tony (who works in and lives underneath Valentina’s corner store), she serves as the moral compass of an embattled neighborhood, the loving gaze neither Shark nor Jet can bear to disappoint.

Valentina is the boldest act of revision in “West Side Story.” Other acts of modernization are matters of emphasis; the character Anybodys, for example, was implied to be trans in all versions of the show, a suggestion this version simply confirms. Through Iris Mena’s brilliant and heartbreaking performance, Anybodys adds a necessary and grounded layer to the fabric of life among New York’s marginalized, mid-century communities.

You can watch “West Side Story” with an eye for all these decisions, large and small; there are myriad touches, from the arrangement of buildings to the slightest gestures, that speak to the artistry at hand. Nearly every move is wise (though a late-film attempt at emotional counterpoint, in the form of a sudden transition from violence to the bubblegum number “I Feel Pretty,” misfires). The film is a feast of measured, thoughtful filmmaking.

I would suggest, though, that you instead surrender wholly to the experience of watching “West Side Story.” Put the world aside for a minute and let yourself be entertained, thoroughly and thoughtfully, by a vibrant film.

My Rating: 9/10

“West Side Story” is now playing in theaters.

Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner