Out of all the movie musicals Hollywood has ever churned out, there are probably only a handful that stand out as remake-proof, and West Side Story is certainly one of them. The 1961 version starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer is almost universally beloved, so what possible incentive could there be to try to force magic to happen a second time? The answer is, of course, because Spielberg wants to, and at this point in his career, he’s pretty much used to getting his way. Regardless of whether or not we need a second West Side Story film, we’re getting one.

To give credit to Spielberg, though, he pulls out all the stops here, grounding his star-crossed lovers in a rapidly crumbling neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan. Genuinely stunning cinematography meets with incredible performances, especially from Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, and Mike Faist, to create a sumptuous cinematic delight that deserves to stand proudly alongside the original, despite some of its not insubstantial flaws.

We all know the story by now: West Side Story is a modernized version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set against a backdrop of racial strife in mid-century New York City. A poor-to-working-class neighborhood is dominated by gang warfare between the Jets, made up of the descendents of white immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Ireland, and the Sharks, who are more recent Puerto Rican newcomers. They fight for control of their rapidly disappearing turf, the Jets threatened by the prospect of outsiders moving in and potentially usurping their meager position of power, and the Sharks looking to find a foothold in a strange new city while preserving their cultural identity.





It’s against this decidedly unromantic backdrop that Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) meet. Maria is a Puerto Rican girl who lives with her overbearing brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose), struggling to find independence in her new home. Tony is a Polish-American nice boy from the wrong side of the tracks who has recently returned to the neighborhood after a year in federal prison, shocking his old gang friends by taking steps to distance himself from them. The two fall in love. It doesn’t go well.

The first thing that’s immediately apparent about this version of West Side Story is its visually dynamic cinematography: although the dance choreography may not be as iconic as Jerome Robbins’ in the original film, Spielberg’s camera has a roving quality, taking in wide-angle shots that fill the screen with activity. When we see the Jets dancing through the streets of New York, it’s more clear than ever before that this is an act of dominance and defiance. The Jets are used to taking up space and resent the infringement of outsiders on their territory, their développés somehow akin to manspreading on the subway. Their neighborhood is in ruins, halfway through being demolished to make room for the now-famous Lincoln Center, creating a tantalizing glimpse of prosperity that is ultimately unattainable.

There are wonderful performances within West Side Story. Rachel Zegler brings a youthful, innocent energy and a clear soprano to the role of Maria. David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose have off-the-charts chemistry together, with DeBose’s performance as Anita a complete and total powerhouse. Mike Faist steps into Russ Tamblyn’s shoes as Riff, allowing the rough-and-tumble leader of the Jets to be an uneasy combination of vulnerable and cocksure. And Rita Moreno makes a delightful appearance in the now-female role of Doc, which is not just as an opportunity to bring Moreno back into the fold, but a decision that makes total sense within the narrative.





Lots of great stuff here. But there’s one performance that we, like all of the promotional materials for the film, aren’t addressing. And that’s Ansel Elgort in the lead role of Tony, which is …. well, there’s no other way to put it: he’s a complete and total charisma vacuum. Seeing him on screen is like seeing nothing at all, and Zegler might as well be acting opposite an empty chair, Clint Eastwood style.

To be fair, we can’t blame it all on him: the character of Tony is just one in a long line of bland but good-natured leading men in musicals, perpetually overshadowed by the more charming supporting performers. But a good actor should be able to breathe life into this role, and he just can’t. Not to mention the fact that Tony is supposed to be a poor working-class schlub, whereas Elgort perpetually exudes entitled frat boy energy throughout every second of his screen time. Luckily, the damage to West Side Story is limited, because the musical has never relied on Tony to charm audiences, but it’s a frustrating weakness that comes across as an unforced error.

Spielberg also draws on the original stage musical at times, which is often a well-judged opportunity to differentiate this version of West Side Story from its illustrious predecessor. But he also makes some decisions that expose the musical’s structural flaws. By moving the musical number “Cool” to an earlier point in the production, for example, it deflates the second act of the show. In the 1961 version, “Cool” acts as a pressure valve for the rage and grief of the Jets; here, you can almost feel the momentum and energy of the narrative completely fading away.

These moments represent the rare stumble in an otherwise delightful remake of a classic. It’s bold, vibrant, and expansive in a way that makes it feel especially cinematic. Spielberg resists the urge to pare down the spectacle of the mid-century musical in an effort to differentiate the two, instead embracing the massive scale and irrepressible energy that the show demands. Spielberg’s West Side Story starts strong and ends strong, but there are some issues in the middle (to say nothing of Ansel Elgort’s status as a complete non-entity) which unfortunately stop it ever-so-short of being a complete triumph.

Rating: ★★★★





Where to watch West Side Story