I suppose it’s possible that someone could make a bad adaptation of West Side Story, if they really tried, but that person would probably not be Steven Spielberg, whose new adaptation of the musical offers a couple of major improvements over the original but mostly provides minor maintenance and bolt-tightening of a work that was already, essentially, a masterpiece.
Of all the improvements over the 1961 film, the most significant is the involvement of actual Puerto Ricans. Then there’s the stunning, glowing vibrancy of the new film’s mid-century New York, which thanks to technological advances in filmmaking looks far more alive than the real version in the original. New dialogue, supplied by Tony Kushner, deepens the characters when it’s not ludicrously expository.
What else? Hmm, I supposed the close-ups are crisper, the costumes more varied, the camera moves more athletic. There are two major changes to the order of the songs, the impacts of which are both highly effective and deeply unpleasant. Oh, and they’ve added an Elgort.
It moved me to tears precisely three (3) times.
I’m sure you know the West Side story of West Side Story, even if you don’t realize it, because it’s just Romeo and Juliet in 1950s New York. Two dumb teens, hailing from rival gangs alike in dignity, meet at a party and engage in a charismatic staring contest, at the end of which they find themselves addicted to love. Their cohorts are displeased. Violence. Tragedy. The end.
Politically, the film is so on-the-nose it’s bloody. The West Side is being bulldozed to make room for Lincoln Center, and the white gang blames Puerto Rican immigrants for displacing them instead of realizing their true mutual enemy. “I wake up to everything I know getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like,” spits one youth; then as now, he’s so close to being right: It’s not people of color who are to blame, but the invisible rich and powerful who look at the neighborhood and see money instead of people. The characters’ racist, misplaced anxiety about displacement could not be more contemporary.
The beauty of West Side Story is not that the story is surprising — it is not — but in the gorgeous Bernstein score, damaskian Sondheim lyrics, the voices, the dance, the spectacle. In this new adaptation, Spielberg delivers on all counts precisely what one would expect: It is a thrill to behold, particularly on as large a screen as possible.
Let’s talk about the highlights, starting with the astounding performance by Ariana DeBose as Anita. Though the character of Maria is the story’s main lover — the Juliet of the story — the role of Anita has always been the juiciest, offering the most range and drama. It is impossible to look away from DeBose whenever she is on screen, careening through ebullient dance numbers into tightly controlled agony in the final act. No actor will ever come close to Rita Moreno’s delivery of the line “don’t you touch me” as Anita in the 1961 version — a hissed hurricane that, Moreno later said, single-handedly won her the Oscar — but DeBose’s mighty internal wrestling with simultaneous feelings of fury, grief, and optimism is a sight to behold. I cannot wait to see how many awards she will win for this performance. All of them, I hope.
What a relief to see this film correct the most egregious misstep of the original, which was the racist depiction of Puerto Ricans by an almost entirely non-Latin cast wearing unforgivable muddy makeup. This new adaptation features far more authentic casting and culture, as well as scenes presented almost entirely in Spanish — none of which is subtitled. If you haven’t picked up enough conversational Spanish to follow along, that is your problem. Your ability to understand the dialogue effectively positions you, a viewer, in relation to the rival gangs.
New York is vibrant in this film. Every building and street seems to be a source of light, and even at night the city glows. It’s fairy-tale lighting, appropriate for a fantastical love story. Every character is kissed with an absurd rim like they’re standing in an enchanted glade. One of the moments that brought me to tears was a trick of the light: When Tony and Maria sing of their timeless love, it is against a raging fiery sunset that — on a big screen, at least — overwhelms the senses. Color explodes, and to my great relief, tedious modern blue-gold palettes are kept to a minimum.
An even greater relief is the loving care with which dance numbers are photographed: Long takes, drinking in the performers’ full bodies. America, a biting political critique, has been liberated from the sound-stagey rooftop of the original and thrust into a bustling street, gorgeously celebratory and cynical. The dance where Tony and Maria meet gives everyone an opportunity to show off, and also moved me to tears with its strategic stillness amidst frenzy. Thankfully, the choreography remains balletic; though it doesn’t fully match Jerome Robbins’ original moves, the tough guys still leap and pirouette into muscular punches during fights.
There are other interesting choices: In the original stage version, I Feel Pretty came at a late point in the show, and was only moved to the first act for the 1961 film. Spielberg restores the song to its former place, giving it a grim and ironic turn that feels like an assault on the audience. This makes the song impossible to innocently enjoy — but that, I have to assume, is the intent. (A strange side-note: The song is set in a department store where — and maybe this is just me? — all of the mannequins resemble Nicole Kidman. I don’t think there’s anything to make of that, it’s just weird.) Cool is similarly restored to an earlier point in the story, and becomes an effective dialogue between a man trying to diffuse a figurative bomb and a bomb that insists it can control its inevitable explosion.
I was also surprised — pleasantly, mostly — by the coded queerness of Riff, the gang leader who persuades Tony to join their cause. Though it’s never explicit, Riff’s lingering gaze on Tony, his need for Tony’s attention, and his jealousy when Tony falls in love with Maria make it easy to read the character as harboring a love for his friend that motivates the eventual violence. (There is also a brief gripping of a gun that rivals the mutual caress of the champagne bottle in Rope.) It’s an intriguing touch that, unfortunately, is one of the film’s few elements that chooses to go with subtlety. I wish this element had been explored further instead of slyly coded as though the movie had actually been made in the ‘50s. Actor Mike Faist, who plays Riff, is another of the film’s highlights, playing a boy whose swagger masks a desperate gasp for control over his life at any cost.
So: For all these changes, is this a better film than the 1961 version, or just a different film? Should you watch one instead of the other?
A true appreciation, I think, requires both. I know, I know, not everyone has five hours (!) of time or patience to devote to a musical, but I do think you’re depriving yourself not to have both in your life. There are countless productions of Romeo and Juliet; how lucky we are that now we needn’t be limited to one West Side Story.