Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story Is an Undeniable Triumph

The film is a genuinely thoughtful update on a classic.

A group of dancers performing in the street in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story"
Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Fox

Steven Spielberg has been making films that feel like musicals for his entire career. No, the fearsome shark of Jaws and dinosaurs of Jurassic Park didn’t belt out a tune, and heroes like Indiana Jones and Tintin weren’t dancing through their set pieces, but they might as well have been. Spielberg is an expert at the careful choreography of camera blocking; his gift for legibly communicating complicated sequences of movement on a massive scale is second to none. So the announcement that he was finally tackling a full-blown musical was perfectly logical—a challenge he’d clearly be able to rise to.

Spielberg set himself an even greater challenge by remaking West Side Story, a landmark show that has already been transformed into a Best Picture winner. Movie musicals are uncommon enough as it is, and they rarely get remade. But the 1961 West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, is still so visually dynamic that some of its frames are burned into our collective cultural memory. Sixty years on, is there room for expansion or reinterpretation? I shouldn’t have worried: Spielberg’s West Side Story is a charismatic showcase for everything he does best on the big screen, and a genuinely thoughtful update, making gentle and incisive rearrangements to justify its brassy sashay back into cinemas.

This West Side Story is written by Tony Kushner, who collaborated with Spielberg on the worthy, brooding historical dramas Munich and Lincoln, both of which successfully translated knotty biographies of moral decision making into great mass entertainment. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed musical update of Romeo and Juliet is not quite as complicated source material, but Kushner’s challenge here was more delicate. He needed to find a way to tweak, without completely revamping a story that some critics find hopelessly outdated, a saga of gangland warfare on Manhattan’s Upper West Side between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks that mixes knife fights with balletic twirls.

He succeeded masterfully. In the film’s opening, Kushner further contextualizes the West Side turf that the Jets and Sharks are warring over: The neighborhood was paved to build Lincoln Center, as part of a wider push for “urban renewal” that erased whole neighborhoods and ways of life. He’s underlining the futility of the gang feud but also the desperation driving it—this land is being betrayed by the city, but it’s still of colossal importance to its residents. The Jets, led by the sparky, furious Riff (Mike Faist), are delinquent kids clinging to their status as natives to lend their lives some meaning; the Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), are introduced by proudly singing “La Borinqueña” (Puerto Rico’s official anthem) at the cops, before Riff can even begin the opening bars of the defiant “Jet Song.”

The entire film is shot through with a little more realism (and a whole lot more location shooting) than Wise and Robbins’s original, eschewing the bold Technicolor and classic choreography of that work. It also, crucially, has an ensemble of Latino actors playing the Sharks, as opposed to the original’s slew of white actors in many of those roles. This remake is vibrant and lively—unafraid of its status as a musical. The brawls and knife fights might have more menacing heft to them, but Riff and company still twirl and jump through the streets when they cause trouble, this time thanks to the choreographer Justin Peck’s wonderfully expressive dance numbers. Most important, Spielberg has the care and patience to present dance numbers properly, favoring long, wide shots instead of the depressing recent trend of close-ups that interrupt the action incessantly.

Spielberg’s attention to visual detail means he can build up the grandeur of each major sequence (“America,” “I Feel Pretty,” and the much beloved multipart dance at the gym being clear standouts). He’s just as finely tuned to the smaller emotions of the narrative as well. When the semiretired Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) wanders into the action and instantly falls for Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), Spielberg makes their teenage affair crackle with as much energy as a dance number featuring dozens of extras. Tony and Maria’s declaration-of-love scene, with her on a balcony and him climbing a fire escape to sing “Tonight” to her, has honest urgency to it, with Tony pressing his face up against a metal grate just to get close before he starts scaling the building.

Elgort, playing the musical’s stiffest part, is fine—good at embodying the crooning, more velvety side of Tony’s personality, but a little flimsy when it comes to the big, tragic emotions of the film’s final act. Zegler, a relative unknown whom Spielberg plucked from the internet, gives the kind of jaw-dropping, instant-superstar performance that comes once a generation in Hollywood, radiating charm and intelligence and turning Maria into more than a lovestruck innocent. In the showy supporting roles, Alvarez is excellent as Bernardo and Ariana DeBose even better as his fiancée, Anita, while Faist’s sinewy, charged work as Riff is a real revelation.

In a further clever little update, the kindly pharmacist from the original, Doc, has been replaced by a character named Valentina, played by Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film). The casting is sentimental, a throwback, but one that Kushner works to his advantage, making the story’s vital voice of wisdom a Puerto Rican actor—but also someone tinged by the joy and tragedy of the original film. It exemplifies the tricky balancing act Spielberg has accomplished with such surprising grace, paying due homage and respect to a classic while producing something fresh.

Related Podcast

Listen to David Sims discuss West Side Story on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review:

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