A ‘West Side Story’ like it’s never been told before

Images courtesy 20th Century Studios.

9/10 Steven Spielberg’s first ever musical is a brilliant, urgently updated adaptation of West Side Story that crashes the classic fairy tale into the real history and violence it’s only ever bordered on.

The Upper West Side, 1953- As San Juan Hill, known one of the worst slums in the city, is in the process of being torn down for what is now Lincoln Center, the Jets, a gang of poor white teens led by Riff (Mike Faist), clash with the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) over the mid-demolition neighborhood. At a social mixer intended to end the violence, Jet co-founder Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls head-over-heels for Bernardo’s sister, María (Rachel Zegler), which only escalates tensions further.

West Side Story feels like a ground-up rewrite compared to the 1961 classic, though I’m not sure how much of this was in the original show – screenwriter Tony Kushner has said his intent was to go back to basics, so it would make sense for a lot of this to be in the musical. It feels like a completely different story that converges onto the same songs, almost all of which are in new settings and new contexts.

There’s a movement toward, but not nearly all the way to, realistic violence. Everything is much more tangible. Songs aren’t normal parts of the story world, they’re explosions of tension that is built through more traditionally communicated means, usually extended sequences of characters talking over each other, and they don’t just dance, they shove and escalate. Tony and María don’t just dance, they can’t keep their eyes off each other. Bernardo and Anita (Ariana DeBose) can’t keep their hands or mouths off each other. Riff is involved in the construction crew demolishing the neighborhood and Bernardo is an amateur boxer, turning their “gangs” into crews with real connections.

The big colors decorating what was essentially an extended stage are replaced by bombastic lights peering through cracks in a full but crumbling cityscape, creating a distinct Blade Runner effect, though most scenes take place in daylight. This movie is still a fairy tale, but it does not take place in a fairy tale world.

Spanish is used brilliantly as a wedge to open the gap between the Puerto Ricans and white New Yorkers even further, mostly while avoiding overt racism. Sharks break into their native language antagonistically, as an assertion of superiority over their monolingual rivals, and the white characters who speak to them with hatred in most moments ask them to speak English with exhaustion instead. West Side Story never subtitles its Spanish, it just frames people yelling at each other in different languages a-la Star Wars, another brilliant touch to emphasize that it is the cultural conflict, not what’s actually being said, that matters.

Language becomes a point of conflict again as Anita asks Bernardo to speak English in their home while the couple clashes over the merits of staying in America, and it finally evolves into a threat as Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) demands Maria and Anita not speak Spanish to each other to communicate in code as he grills them in relation to the double-homicide at the film’s midpoint.

The more outlandish dancing elements of “West Side Story” have been kept out of the promotional material for obvious reasons, but they pop up. They’re still wild and hard to watch for a viewer unused to such things, but they’re minimized in favor of a shoulders-back swagger for Jets and Sharks who are now ‘50s greasers. The effect that is much more masculine and human than the ’61 film’s dance-fighting, but still quite gay. It’s a very gay movie in general – just about every word out of Riff’s mouth could be a come-on instead of an insult – but much more openly so. These are full, gay human beings, not cartoon characters performing for an audience full of people who think they’ve never seen a queer person before.

Anybodys (Iris Menas), who had previously straddled the line between a tomboy and a trans man, is explicitly trans now. He puts the movie in a tough situation – the attitudes and knowledge have clearly evolved here, but there’s no way to portray these gangs of racist, macho teenagers as being trans-friendly or this impoverished environment as having a happy ending for an out trans man. West Side Story makes the best of it, and at least they don’t kill him. They do almost rape him at one point, though.

That’s another welcome attitude adjustment in West Side Story – when the Jets try to gang-rape Anita late in the film, it’s spelled out. Sexual attacks can be confusing things to see and experience, and having someone attach the ugliest possible word to the scene makes it much easier to stay with. The “anything could have happened” ominousness of a woman alone with a group of hostile men is no longer something to sweep under the rug, unfit for decent conversation.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Ansel Elgort, but he shows some real stuff as Tony. It’s possible he’s just never had a director like Spielberg before.

Maybe it could simply be said that Spielberg’s West Side Story is “woke,” but I don’t think that’s true. These tensions and their relationship to violence that doesn’t necessarily materialize in the text were always plainly there in the story. They aren’t new additions pandering to changing times, the film just looks at them more directly, communicating more effectively to a 2021 audience that is looking at their real-world basis more directly as well.

All the additions of more human behavior and settings multiply the story’s bite. It’s not more realistic, and it wouldn’t necessarily be better if it were – movies don’t have to be realistic, especially musicals, but the intersection between this adaptation and the world it releases into is more clear, and it makes the material to say the things it always said more cogently and deliberately. “Romeo and Juliet” is a story about stupid little 14-year-olds who can’t handle puberty, but West Side Story is a grim fairy tale set at the intersections of poverty, law enforcement, immigration, gentrification, racial tensions, machismo and sexual violence. This adaptation sets it in a still-magical but completely unsanitized world.

By the same means, the playfulness that remains from more light-hearted performances becomes a threat, an explicit acknowledgement that even though they’re playing with real fire in this version, they’re still playing. “Cool” is now performed by Tony as he tries to steal a gun from Riff, and sees the Jets playing catch with a loaded revolver. When Bernardo and Riff accidentally kill each other, it feels like an eventuality – death doesn’t suddenly crash into this West Side Story, it converts on a flirtation that began from its first shot.

For Spielberg, this represents a sudden and sharp step up from his recent work, which has been more concerned with playing with digital compositing and viewer nostalgia. West Side Story, the first adaptation of which released 10 years before Spielberg’s first feature, is something that he personally was nostalgic for, and more importantly something that he had a vision for, a vision that is made inescapable in the film itself. It’s everything you want to see from an adaptation, something with meaningful, obvious relationships to the stage musical, to the first film adaptation, to the time it releases into.

There’s a lot of great work by great artists out right now, and this big, bold, classic movie musical from one of history’s favorite directors is right up there with the cream of the crop. If there’s only a limited amount of movie time this Christmas season, West Side Story should be near the top of your list.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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