Come kids, gather round! I want you to close your eyes and picture a darkened theatre. There’s magic on the screen, and somewhere in the audience is a young boy. His eyes are wide, his heart is full, and his mind takes Robert Wise and Jerome Robbin’s musical to even more vivid and imaginative places than the current tech is capable of. As the lights go out and the closing credits roll we hear him whisper, “I can do better.”
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story might just be the film he’s spent his entire life rehearsing for. While it isn’t always perfect, a master’s eye for visual imagery and a heart full of warming sentiment are enough to catapult this to the top of this year’s lists. Maybe he made a misstep here and there, but his heartwarming excess took a remake that could have been an eye-rolling embodiment of redundancy and turned it into a loving tribute to an era we’ve let go of. His nostalgia is to our benefit this time around, taking a musical that I thought had room for improvement and making it a capital “M” movie in a way we don’t get enough of these days.
Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) have never been quite so charming and sweet as they are this time around. Elgort is playing to his strengths, wrestling with that old-school Hollywood guapo punim that made men in the bygone era of slicked-back hair and sincere smiles. Zegler, however, is something that I never thought we’d get again – a true movie star. There have been few potential candidates for that in the last couple of decades, but holy shit there’s nothing like this. These two struck a raw nerve with me, one that has been hungry for something magical like this, and it’s a truly special moment to look out and see a new performer that took my breath away.
That isn’t to say we are only looking at her. West Side Story was never truly about Tony and Maria, no matter what its roots in Romeo & Juliet would have you believe. Deep down it remains a story of two individuals locked in eternal combat. Bernardo (David Alvarez) spits as much vitriol as one could possibly imagine, most of it in beautifully unsubbed Spanish (one of the major strengths of the film and a perfect balance between the underprivileged white kids and the racially spat-upon Puerto Rican kids). His counter, Riff (Mike Faist), reeks of the boy from the wrong side of the tracks that embraced his identity young and took as many chances from himself as he had taken away from him.
The tale of West Side Story is endless, one that features Americans and legal immigrants locked in xenophobic combat while jingoistic ideals of both Puerto Rican and American ancestry decides battle lines. Knives are out and beaks are bloody as ever, tonally moving on from the 1961 production. Most tales aren’t truly as old as time, but viscious hatred over the mere existence of people over aesthetic differences is one we may never truly move beyond. Much is made of how similar the Jets and Sharks are, but little of it matters to them beyond the color of their skin.
David Newman has stepped in to take over musical arrangements from Leonard Bernstein, but the true master behind what makes West Side Story work is Janusz Kamiński. The cinematographer shot the ever-loving hell out of this, taking the original production designs (which look like what a high school theatre group with a budget could pull off, complete with brownface) and blowing them up into 1950s New York as some of us were never alive to see. It’s a stunningly beautiful film, one complete with an incredible rearrangement of musical numbers. The opening shot being changed from shots of a stage to a nimble drone shot New York as Lincoln Center is dislocating the city’s poor sets the stage better than any title card or expository narration ever could.
“Tonight, tonight, the world is wild and right.” Those words will ring in my head for days to come as I think of how beautiful they felt coming from the screen. Rarely do I get so much “movie” in my filmgoing experiences. I always bet on Spielberg and sometimes I lose, but this paid out dividends. I cannot wait for everyone to see what might be one of the best films of the year. Charming, sincere, and achingly beautiful, West Side Story is required viewing for anyone that still feels something when they go to the movies.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is now in theatres.