Writing about Steven Spielberg makes me feel nervous. His work is easily the most instrumental to my passion for film today. I recall vividly seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a four year old – it’s the movie that made me fall in love with the cinema. I saw Jurassic Park at least once per week for most of an entire summer and then wore out a VHS tape. Nobody else has ever done populist storytelling as well as Mr. Spielberg.
So it’s with great deference to Mr. Spielberg’s achievements that I admit West Side Story is the single Spielberg movie I have least anticipated in my life. The Robbins and Wise 1961 original has aged like a fine wine and, as my wife would chime in, the Broadway cast recording is an even better way to experience the show. The musical is already an essential work of both Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. This project just felt so unnecessary.
I am, I’m happy to report, an idiot.
Why would I ever doubt The Great Spielberg? From the film’s opening crane shots over the land that will become Lincoln Center through its final tragic moments, Spielberg makes West Side Story feel vibrant and present in a way that serves as a worthy introduction to classical musicals for a whole new generation.
All musicals require a “buy in” from the audience. For years, I struggled with on-the-nose emotional songs and dance moves supplanting classic action beats. The filmmaking on display is here is so energetic and active that Spielberg manages to bathe classic Broadway-style choreography with the stylistic acumen of a modern pop music video. It’s strange to say it but the 75 year old master makes Broadway seem cool. Janusz Kaminski’s camera moves as though playing along with the dance moves while the editing serves to put a point on each movement. The craft is so exuberant that it’s impossible not to feel the show brought to life.
It helps, of course, that The Great Spielberg has a stupendous cast of players bringing this to life.
Let’s just start at the top with Rachel Zegler. It’s really incredible to see a star come ablaze on screen before your very eyes. Not only does she have astonishing pipes, she has one of the most expressive faces I can recall with huge eyes capable of conveying vast wellsprings of emotion. She has a deft comedic touch and the range to trawl the depths of tragedy Maria needs. She exudes the sort of raw charisma and classical star power that forces you to pay attention. The gamble to build this film around an unknown pays off tremendously.
The two big supporting turns in the film – Ariana DeBose (The Prom, Apple TV+’s Schmigadoon) as Anita and Mike Faist as Riff – are simply stupendous. Both give fully committed, instantly iconic performances with voices that rival the West Side Stories of yore. They both bring tremendous tremendous physicality and vibrancy in their dance scenes. Faist, in particular, is going for it with a big performance that never tips over the edge into something farcical.
Rita Moreno, Academy Award winner for Anita in the 1961 version, brings soulful kindness to a restructured version of the Doc role in the original. Her new version of “Somewhere” may not be as vocally impressive as the original duet, but her emotive performance elevates the song. David Alvarez’s Bernardo, Kevin Csolak’s Diesel, Corey Stoll’s (Netflix’s House of Cards, Ant-Man) Lieutenant Shrank, and Brian d’Arcy James’s (Hawkeye, Spotlight) Officer Krupke all shine in smaller roles. In a film year that may come to be defined by the strength of its musicals, I’m not sure there’s a more fun song & dance number than Csolak’s “Dear Officer Krupke” here.
Finally, I get that Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, The Fault in Our Stars) is deeply unpopular for conduct in his past, but I found him largely effective here. It’s tough to come off as conventionally masculine in a leading man song & dance role these days and Elgort manages the trick. His voice is strong enough for the part, and his chemistry with Zegler is strong. He does, however, seem to be acting in a far more Shakespearean, and far less fun, version of this story. He’s dour in a film where everyone else is a breath of life.
I hope this beautifully made film doesn’t get lost in the aftermath of Spider-Man: No Way Home and a seemingly unending pandemic. While it’s not my favorite Spielberg film, it’s certainly one of his best directed. It deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
West Side Story was released on December 10, 2021 and is playing in theaters nationwide.