West Side Story

West Side Story ★★★★★

Nobody does it better than Spielberg. The “rumble” two-thirds of the way through the film is one of the most astounding and electric set pieces of his career.

I’ll admit I initially questioned the necessity of this remake. But Spielberg (along with key collaborators Tony Kushner and Janusz Kaminski) make this endeavor feel essential from the first frame to the last. It’s a big, colorful and emotionally wrenching time at the movies.

Full review:

Nobody does it better than Steven Spielberg. I’ll admit I initially questioned the necessity of a remake of West Side Story, the spellbinding Broadway musical that was first adapted into a film in 1961 (winning ten Oscars, including Best Picture). But Spielberg (along with key collaborators, including screenwriter Tony Kushner and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) makes this endeavor feel essential from the first frame to the last. This is a big, colorful and emotionally wrenching time at the movies.

On New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s, two street gangs are engaged in a turf war – the Jets, comprised of second and third generation Irish and Italian Americans, and the Sharks, who are largely Puerto Rican. The two gangs are stand-ins for the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the star-crossed lovers from opposite sides who further escalate the gangland conflict are Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler). After a chance encounter at a local dance, the two fresh-faced teenagers fall head over heels for one another – incensing both gangs in the process. Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks, meets with Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the Jets, to discuss the terms of a “rumble” – a planned, violent confrontation between gangs that, as anyone who has read Romeo and Juliet knows, does not exactly set the course for Tony and Maria’s happily-ever-after.

The aforementioned “rumble,” which occurs about two-thirds of the way through West Side Story, is one of the most astounding and electric set pieces of Spielberg’s career. It doesn’t matter if you know the outcome. It is harrowing and tense, and one of the most memorable scenes in any movie this year.

This West Side Story is especially effective as an illustration of how two groups can be pitted against one another, each thinking the other is responsible for their disenfranchisement, while the real perpetrators (in this case, the City of New York clearing the neighborhood for what will become Lincoln Center) remain above the chaos. Spielberg and Kushner have made some fascinating changes to the source material in this regard. The presence of Puerto Ricans is not what’s causing the Jets’ disenfranchisement (that would be growing up without parents and role models, as articulated in the number Gee, Officer Krupke), but anti-immigration sentiment serves as an easy outlet for their rage and feelings of victimhood.

But these changes don’t feel like Spielberg and Kushner trying to make the story more “relevant” for a modern audience; instead, they’re taking thematic strands that have always been a part of this story’s text and fleshing them out in a way that resonate even more. After all, West Side Story was a musical that tackled nativism and class divisions long before those ideas were prevalent in mainstream musicals.

It’s a particular thrill to watch Spielberg wield his visual wizardry in a movie musical. Most of his contemporaries – Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Robert Altman – have made big-screen musicals to varying degrees of success, but Spielberg’s sensibilities are perhaps the most in-tune with the showmanship needed to craft a memorable musical. West Side Story is another jewel to add to the director’s incredibly varied 21st century filmography, which has tackled startling visions of the future (Minority Report), reckonings with vengeance (Munich), whimsical comedy-drama (Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal), pure popcorn entertainment (The Adventures of Tintin, Ready Player One) and, perhaps most profoundly, detailed portraits of American history (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post).

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