Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner (based on the play by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim)
Let's hearken back to the winter of 2021, when I watched and failed to write about Steven Spielberg's West Side Story. I was both excited and apprehensive about it. I wanted my favorite director to make something brilliant; I was worried he might just remake a movie that already exists in a perfectly (or, if you prefer, mostly) acceptable form. This feeling wasn't helped by how obviously it represented an item on the director's bucket list: Spielberg, almost 75 years old upon this movie's release, had spent about ten years out of a fifty year career begging to be allowed to make a film musical, beginning with the fun dance hall number from 1941 (hell, arguably beginning with the cosmic jam session of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), finding space for a musical number in The Color Purple, and ultimately channeling Busby Berkeley with a lovely and mind-bending rendition of "Anything Goes" for the prologue of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, before, whatever reason, he kind of stopped putting musical numbers in his movies after having two in Hook. Though around that time he married his musical number from Temple of Doom.
We probably don't need to (though we will) refer to Spielberg's oft-cited talent, alongside his old traditional editing partner Michael Kahn (joining him here with his new traditional editing partner, Sarah Broshar) for conjuring, in their many films together, a musical-like rhythm to their action; nor is it strictly necessary to refer to Spielberg's career-long collaboration with his emotional and narrative heavy-lifter, composer John Williams (and while the arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's preexisting score is credited to David Newman, Williams is still here as a "musical consultant"). But we do still have Ready Player One, Spielberg's film just prior to this, which itself leans heavily upon a romantic dance sequence set to a New Order song in CGI space. It's a great scene. Clearly, he was limbering back up.
My position, which I'll reiterate for at least the 39th time, is that Steven Spielberg is the greatest filmmaker there ever was—maybe ever will be—but even though his years of commercial dominance are objectively over and he arguably has his limits, he is also one of the most instinctively visual filmmakers to ever live, one of the medium's clearest storytellers, and a director who understands how to create emotionally-immediate film images like maybe five other people. This is why his action scenes are so good. It's why even his dialogue scenes are more action-packed than most people's action scenes. Given that these are the exact skills required for a film musical, we always assumed that he would naturally be a good at making one. As we (or, rather, some of us) discovered last year, that assumption was correct. Doing a musical even gives him a crutch to lean on, as regards the decision to remake a romance, the latter genre being something that Spielberg has spent all fifty years of a fifty year career telling us he probably wouldn't be good at, though Always notwithstanding (Always is never withstanding), I've changed my mind on that: when he actually tries, he can be. But then, Always is, well, also a remake of a mid-century romance, which Spielberg screwed up completely, so if anybody had actually remembered Always that would've been another perfectly good reason to be nervous.
We can, anyway, trivially explain the decision to do a musical, generally, but that brings us to the very specific decision to do West Side Story '21, remaking West Side Story '61, and of course one would be apprehensive: for this is the most Steven fucking Spielberg decision imaginable. It's slightly arrogant, for starters. I have no special reverence for Robert Wise's West Side Story, but it is an imposing Best Picture winner, and there are so many other mid-century musicals, and several other film musical styles, that Spielberg could have resurrected instead. I doubt any ever occurred to him—he may love 30s and 40s froth as much as I do, but it's almost impossible to imagine, e.g., Willie Scott Comes Home ever crossed his mind. It probably didn't even cross Kate Capshaw's mind. No: Steven Spielberg had long since entrenched himself, both as a matter of reputation and within his own mind, as the director who occasionally still does pure popcorn, but whose real life's work is to serve as American cinema's great chronicler of history. So of course he did West Side Story. Of course he did the one canonical musical he could find about a Goddamn race war.
I'd express surprise he didn't take on Fiddler On the Roof, the musical about Goddamn pogroms, except he already did that too, or produced anyway, and it was called An American Tail. Add in the resurgence of angry nativist sentiment that was at the time perhaps the single most saliently frightening aspect of the Trump Era—it's horrible that I do have to say "at the time"—which peaked with the Trump Administration's jolly indifference to the mass destruction caused by Hurricane Maria (jeez) when it landed on (shall I remind us?) the American soil of Puerto Rico. At this point I assume the stars were getting just plum worn out, aligning themselves so hard for Spielberg to do the movie musical about anti-Puerto Rican racism that audiences would be primed to (as it turned out) ignore almost completely. I'm not sure I have it in me to blame them: maybe that's just not why they watch movies, and given West Side Story's box office failure, it obviously isn't why they watch musical romances, even on the off chance they even get one anymore. On that latter count, anyway, I myself will probably never feel like the musical form generally and mid-century musical forms in particular represent a truly appropriate venue for sociopolitical heaviness. I make exceptions—I'm making an exception right now—but to my mind even the last hour of The Sound of Music was a terrible mistake.
I suspect Spielberg's frequent screenwriter (and a Broadway dude himself) Tony Kushner actually tricked him a little in this regard, for the movie is "about" anti-Latin racism but in truth not fundamentally about anti-Latin racism; it winds up finding all its insights in another heavily sociopolitical place altogether (maybe not altogether). By the same token Spielberg had already proven himself one of the surprisingly few good political filmmakers of the Trump Era by giving us the credit to understand multivalent historical allegory, cf. The Post. Whatever the case, the story here remains basically the same as it always was: racialized Romeo & Juliet in Manhattan in 1957, except Juliet lives, all the better for a character in the actual core narrative to wish a pox on both houses for their violent macho bullshit.
So, on what I assume must be the West Side of Manhattan, there is an impoverished neighborhood currently in demographic transition, which should matter very little to its young inhabitants yet has, nevertheless, become the only thing that can still matter to them, for the whole place, white and Puerto Rican sectors alike, is scheduled to be obliterated and replaced by the Lincoln Center and new high-rises for the rich. Representing the abiding anger of the white youth are the Jets, a gang of about twenty Irish, Poles, and other European-American Catholics, led by Riff (Mike Faist), who pursue racialized hi-jinx and light hate-crimes against the Puerto Ricans down the street, protected, for some values of "protected," by the Sharks, led by Bernarndo (David Alvarez). Recently out of prison is the Jets' tallest champion, Tony (Ansel Elgort), sent there for almost murdering another kid in a gang-related rumble. However, having changed over his year away, so that now he really does want nothing whatsoever to do with his friends' pointless struggles, Tony has attempted to hide away in the basement of the widow of the local pharmacist, Valentina (Rita Moreno), herself a Puerto Rican. He's drawn back into his old life anyway: at a social dance that's put on by the local... church? high... school? (not according to these actors' bios) in order to drive the plot, Tony meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo's sister, and despite her being there with Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), and despite him being Polish, sparks fly.
This does not go unnoticed, and provides a ready excuse for what Bernarno and Riff already wanted, which was to negotiate a date and ground rules for a battle to determine who gets to rule these streets for the next three weeks. And Tony is very much invited, whether he wants to be or not; he sees Maria again, secretly, but now he falls into the opposite trap of violence, by believing he can actually put a stop to it. He can't, and Bernarndo kills Riff; Tony, in a moment of vengeful anger, kills Bernardo; Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) is caught between her own natural desire for revenge and her increasingly-tenuous desire not to see Maria hurt further; and Chino has Riff's gun; and now it's really fucked up.
This marches across 156 minutes, though it's one terribly breathless 156 minutes; I won't say it doesn't feel it, but it earns it. Spielberg was determined not to cut any musical numbers (though he was willing to reshuffle scenes), and for all that this story is simple and even trite, I cannot begin to imagine what to cut. I would not, for example, even think of cutting down the (surprisingly long) first act, which establishes this place as something right at the triangulated center between almost painful tangibility, movie musical artifice, and symbolic post-apocalyptic nightmarescape, the Jets introduced at the end of an anticipant exploration of the neighborhood, emerging out of the dust and wreckage of half-demolished buildings like rats emerging from a hole, and crossing back over the literal, visible border between their existence and their annihilation. I would not even cut Lt. Schrank's (Corey Stoll's) extremely thematic monologue to our Sharks and Jets, despite its disfavor amongst many commentators—I mean, I wonder what they think of Romeo & Juliet's scene-setting narration, as it's pretty hand-holding, too. I also complain about overenunciative screenplays so often I worry I'm sending the wrong signals about it, and this one overenunciates something that's pretty damned self-enunciating already on the basis of mere color (which could mean "brown and white," but in case their complexion evades you, the Sharks and the Jets are also "red and blue"). But it's sneakier than that, and whatever else, I just treasure the scalpel-sharpness of Schrank's description of the Jets as "the last of the can't-make-it-Caucasians"—nasty, unfair, funny, even slightly true—and I love Stoll's sneering delivery of the same.
Likewise, everyone zeroes in on "Gee, Officer Krupke," a comic musical number with the unimportant Jets with funny lyrics revolving around dueling mid-century philosophies of criminal justice. I don't get it: I think it's a bit of a blast. It is, whatever else, some rather welcome comic relief in a film that only ever finds its way to true humorlessness in its final act, but has never exactly been a hilarious romantic farce. Nonetheless, it's kind of amazing that Spielberg manages to make his, uh, race war movie... fun?
It is, whatever it is, propulsive, and surprisingly able to manage empathy for both sides of its war, which really does feel like an impossible feat for 2021. I've been speaking of cutting nothing: it is, in fact, almost too damned propulsive. Some of that's just down to the source material—but this is a 156 minute romance where the romantic leads are maybe together for 20, and I'm sure I'm being generous with that estimate. And while they sing at each other, it's also a romantic dance musical where they don't dance together. Well, I am not calling whatever the hell it is Zegler and Elgort do during "Dance At the Gym" dancing, at least not film musical dancing.
It gets the job done anyway, almost miraculously so. Spielberg absolutely brute-forces it, but Goddamn it, it works. It's perfect: a flipped angle tells us this is love at first sight, two humans drawn together amidst a wind-like rustle of out-of-focus anonymous bodies, before rupturing the scene with a hard cut (a hard cut by the sound editors, too), that puts a vision before Tony like a beautiful alien emerging from a spaceship, an idea, or an ideal, suffused with the most sensitive lens flare Janusz Kaminski has ever managed to wrangle, in a career largely devoted to wrangling such lens flares. A later scene, also driven by song and light (now streaming through stained glass), confirms their love, though that love is only truly sealed in the aftermath of violence, which suddenly throws the musical crutch away—it's just pure acting and pure melodrama, Zegler's tiny little fists flying in rage at the limp bulk of her brother's killer, explaining that the only thing that could make her hate Tony more is if she lost him, too. Elgort is even surprising, as I've never liked him in any other movie. I'm not entirely sure he's the weakest of the principal cast (Zegler kind of necessarily floats through the entire first two hours plus of the movie—but even this is used to punishing effect by the clever and vicious idea to move her dinky "I Feel Pretty" number to later in the narrative, poisoning it with unwitting irony—and while she hits higher highs, Elgort has more to do). If Elgort is the weak link, though, it's because this whole cast is almost flawlessly good.
It was always unavoidable to have to compare it to Wise's film, and the performances are the easiest in, with its across-the-board better cast (including, in Moreno, the cast member who was in both movies in two different roles), and not just for that one really obvious reason. Hell, I'm not sure it is less obvious with Faist, whose Riff is the one cast member who feels completely distinct from the '61 film beyond the amount of light-absorbing makeup on their faces. Russ Tamblyn's chummy Californian unaccountably leading a Manhattan street gang gets overwritten pretty totally by Faist's wiry charisma, and even the physicality is better: Tamblyn and Faist are similarly situated as late-twenties "teenagers" who both look (in these movies, I say, to not be mean) like they're actually in their late thirties, except, if you'll follow me, Faist looks like a teen who looks like he's in late thirties, life having ridden him hard and put him away wet. He sinks his teeth into the vastly deeper emotions Spielberg and Kushner make available to him, and he never lets go—his Riff is incarnate hopelessness, only not properly "nihilistic" because he's found meaning in violence, and there's a distinct sense that the only thing he's really after is to be honored by the friend he wants to die with him.
Well, it's not Faist single-handed, even if nobody else in the cast covers themselves so fully in glory, but it is Spielberg too, and—to address the elephant—West Side Story '21 just puts over the entire objectively-cringe concept of "dancing street gangs" so much better than West Side Story '61. I don't say that, necessarily, to diminish Wise's film (or the play, or their choreographer, Jerome Robbins), for they had their own goals and they achieved them, whether you like those goals or not. But man is it better-integrated here, not seeming so at war with the drama and the concept of the Jets as a dangerous, racist gang. As with Faist vs. Tamblyn it knocks a lot of the "theater kid" out of the proceedings even though they are, indeed, still snapping in unison and busting moves, and still not appearing to have any economic purpose as a gang (drug dealing, etc.). It's more like The Warriors, and there's something more militaristic about it here—the flocklike movements feel fascist—or maybe it's just Spielberg's aptness with suggesting incipient violence, even when they're not being actively violent. So finally we get to the actual choreography! That duty was fulfilled here by Justin Peck, and "Cool," the '61 version of which has unfortunately not survived the parody it invited, is one of the differences here that really transforms this West Side Story into its own thing, restaged as the world's queasiest game of keepaway in the neighborhood ruins, played between Tony and Riff for control of a gun that will, of course, go on to take Tony's life. (And it's worth remarking, again, how impressively structurally-sound Spielberg and Kushner's choices are as regards how to reshuffle the play's musical numbers.)
The downside, though I feel like jerk saying it, is that it's such well-integrated choreography that it threatens to just not be choreography anymore; Spielberg films "Cool" amazingly well, his and Kaminski's muscular camera dancing along with them, but it certainly begins to raise the question if this is even "dancing," or if this is just "a stylized version of literal diegetic events." And that's West Side Story '21's problem: it's a 156 minute dance musical that's pretty bound to the diegesis and, frankly, without a whole lot of dance in the first place, despite Spielberg's style proving superb at translating Broadway-style declamation, stagey blocking, and occasional terpsichorean filigree into a cinematic medium. But we do have the immoveable fact of a dance musical that crosses the two and a half hour line but which, even if I'm happy to count "Cool" amongst its best scenes, only provides two other standout dance numbers. (If you said it had only two other dance numbers at all, it wouldn't be inaccurate; "Gee, Officer Krupke" is even more "barely dance" than "Cool.") These two, then, would be the compound number, "Dance At the Gym," and Anita's song, "America." Which are, in fairness, awesome—you probably don't even remeber In the Heights, but Spielberg's version of "America," serving largely the same "joyfully dance in the Hispanic streets!" purposes, blows that film's group number's doors off.
"Dance At the Gym" is particularly accomplished, and, I think rather obviously, the best dance sequence here, benefiting from the sudden introduction in Kaminski's photography of much more saturated colors than before (and mostly after)—and just to wedge this in somewhere, the color-coding in Paul Kazewell's costume design is such great stuff that it might be a bigger reason than literally anything else that I believe in Tony and Maria's love, and that's only the half of it, somehow managing to do an extremely schematic and overbearing color-coding plan that is in no way subtle and nevertheless making it read as subtle, and as completely plausible clothing that people in 1957 would be wearing. (Of course, he's also joined in this effort by production designer Adam Stockhausen, who does my favorite thing in the whole movie: Maria's bed is blue, which in the context of a Spielberg movie's sexuality is such straight-up pornographic sleaze that you could pop a boner from it.) But "Dance At the Gym": I see the word "classical" thrown around a lot for Spielberg's construction of these dance sequences. I disagree, unless you're just using the word "classical" as a synonym for "good" or "colorful upskirt spins," which admittedly isn't the worst summation of mid-century dance films. But it is not, like a classical film musical, very interested in the spectacle of athleticism from its participants, though it often finds such spectacle within it, and Spielberg can certainly appreciate it. But it simply is not cut for the purpose of showing off the movement of human bodies as an end in itself. It's something else: a terrific exercise in challenge dancing across an entire chorus—two choruses, even—splendidly but very spikily edited, getting across the idea that this is already a rumble-by-other-means.
Which circles us back, in the end, to Kushner and his script. It does all it needs to do for the romantic tragedy that was foreordained all the way back when Shakespeare wrote it; and I want to be clear, this is the most important thing. But damn is it a fascinating script: the emphasis on racial dynamics is, in a sense, almost a blind. It's very often talked about in this script, but it's not, actually, didactic; because the racial dynamics are the framework the characters themselves use to get at what isn't discussed ad nauseam in this script, but which finds its way into it through every possible sideways opening. I'm not sure when exactly it becomes clear. Maybe it's when Bernardo says "we gotta do it—it's stupid, but we gotta do it." Maybe it's when the girls at the dance complain that they're not fucking dancing (which is to say, they're complaining they're not fucking). Maybe it was clear all the way back when the Jets and Sharks stand there in mirrored lines, glaring at a cop in the mutual understanding that he's outside their shared system of honor.
If it weren't race, they'd find some other sorting mechanism to wear red and blue and dance and get into gang fights and forge bonds so intense that Kushner, surely not by accident, is perfectly willing to push right up to the edge of homoeroticism, albeit with the keen understanding that it's about physical and emotional survival rather than sex, that the boys simply mean more to each other, and they have only each other as any possible anchor in their dissolving world—and while Tony has betrayed that by anchoring himself to a woman instead, he can't escape them, neither Bernardo nor Riff (nor Chino, a whole complex of motivations by the end, despite being like the eighth most important character, finally dispensing with any honor right around the same time the Jets do). It's honestly one of the most intelligent scripts about masculinity out there, the appeal and awfulness of it alike, the way it shapes and even serves as the sturdy patriarchal foundation for racism (or "racialism" or "bigotry," if you'd rather be a fucking geek, though the point is, Bernarndo is as much a villain as Riff—but also as much a hero, if the latter only in a Homeric sense). It culminates in every horror masculinity's capable of. I mean, sure: that's true of the '61 film, too, and the stageplay (it's interesting to note that in early development, West Side Story was about two white gangs, and you can still perceive how much of an overlay the Puerto Rican aspect is); and it's sort of even true of Romeo & Juliet. But this screenplay is so much more deliberately About Masculinity, As Inflected By Class and Race, even though I'm almost positive they somehow never even say the word "man." Even the trans character (in a fairly canny change, that is kind of not really a change), Anybodys (iris menas), isn't excused—though he probably thinks he's been, despite having spent the entire film busting his ass to earn the respect of a white power gang. He receives it just in time to not lift a finger to stop them from raping Anita (which in terms of Anybodys, is a damned edgy change), at least beyond a milquetoast warning that she was never going to interpret correctly anyway. (Christ, the women themselves aren't excused: I don't know if it's a Kushner addition, but anyway, I don't recall the original film having a lyric in the "Tonight Quintet" about Anita getting wet over the thought of her boyfriend kicking ass.) And I still don't know if any of this is the right and proper thing for a musical to do; I still believe it is not. But it's one hell of a Steven Spielberg movie, anyway.