With Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” he manages to offer up a brilliant, dazzling, and engrossing epic retelling of the original musical. It’s stunning how much Spielberg is able to suck us in using the elements of dance as important and crucial moments of exposition in lieu of endless dialogue. To say that “West Side Story” is a surprise, is an understatement. While Spielberg is a wonderful director, there’s never been any indication he could deliver on a musical. But with his version of “West Side Story” is gives us the classic tale of star crossed lovers, and a race war amidst the back drop of New York. Except what Spielberg does is beautifully recontextualizes the entire tale of the Jets and the Sharks for Modern audiences.
In the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1957, against the backdrop of the decaying tenements in the San Juan Hill neighborhood and the constant threat of the wrecking ball, two warring gangs– Riff’s Jets and Bernardo’s Puerto Rican Sharks–fight for supremacy. Now, with a massive rumble planned with higher stakes than ever, an unexpected whirlwind romance at the high-school dance between former Jet brawler (and ex-con) Tony and Bernardo’s little sister María sets the stage for a turf war. With loyalties torn, and their love intensifying, Tony hopes end the rumble before it devolves in to an all out race war.
While the film is true to its core narrative, it injects themes of gentrification and class warfare that will speak to younger audiences with an open mind. Ever so subtly, Spielberg positions his characters as two groups of impoverished people that are battling for a piece of land that they’re being pushed out of the upper class. As ghettos are destroyed and upscale housing is built, there’s a lot of exploration about the American dream, and the search for happiness. If these groups of people would stop fighting for a moment, they would realize they’re being pitted against each other by Lieutenant Schrank. He slithers in to most scenes delightfully antagonizing every character, relying on hot heads and boiled blood to eliminate each other in the face of a whiter New York.
Corey Stoll’s walk on is brief, but powerful as he clearly sets the stage for what is such a trivial war of tribes. The cast is immaculate with Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler delivering stunning turns as the young lovers; meanwhile Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist are absolutely electric their respective roles as Anita and Riff. While Rita Moreno will always be beloved for her turn as Anita in the original “West Side Story,” Boseman is phenomenal in the role. The romance between Maria and Tony is taken so much more as a peek in to how similar the Jets and the Sharks are. They love their families, love to dance, and can never stop to find common ground thanks to immense pride. This leads to Tony trying to stop this inevitably bloody rumble between two gangs, as he also seeks redemption for his time in jail.
The way Spielberg stages the classic musical numbers is nothing short is breathtaking as he delivers on wonderful, albeit different, versions of iconic numbers like “Mambo,” and “America.” Spielberg has delivered on a wonderful re-interpretation of a classic musical; it’s a stunning and effortlessly engaging romance drama that pays tribute to the classic musical while also appealing to the modern audience.