I have a running joke about Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story with a cyber friend of mine. It seems he, my friend, was looking forward to it. I wasn’t necessarily. I kept reminding my friend that Steven Spielberg produced CATS. That musical, released around this same time of year, was awful, just awful.
Fortunately, Mr. Spielberg didn’t just produce this modern West Side Story. He also directed it. I can give you my overall opinion before you read any further. It’s better than CATS.
It has always been thought that Mr. Spielberg had a knack for directing musicals. Our first inkling was the ballroom dance sequence in 1979’s 1941. The director staged a kinetic dance number and a fictional re-creation of the Zoot Suit riots. The second clue was the opening sequence of 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a scene-setter for that movie.
However, for his first full-fledged musical, Mr. Spielberg decided to mount a brand new production of Jerome Robbins’ original Broadway play dealing with a modern version of the Romeo and Juliet story. Unlike the 1961 version directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, Spielberg gives his story some context, providing this writer with the grounding the story needed.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who previously collaborated with the director on Munich and Lincoln, set the film in the mid to late 1950s. The area where the future Lincoln Center would be built was being razed, and inhabitants were being moved out. The neighborhood was once heavily Irish and Polish. Still, as the film opens, the area has become primarily Hispanic and, specifically, Puerto Rican. We come to learn that there’s a battle for turf between the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican.
Using the music of Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and the choreography of Justin Peck, Spielberg introduces the Jets and the Sharks to his audience in a much more believable fashion than did Wise and Robbins. You understand right away why these two gangs are fighting a futile battle both are destined to lose.
Ansel Elgort plays Tony, a former co-founder of the Jets who now works in a drug store after a year in prison for a previous gang fight. Tony professes that he wants no more of the gang life and is content with working for Valentina (Rita Moreno), the Hispanic owner of the drug store. The other founder of the Jets is Riff (Mike Faist), the current leader. The Jets are feuding with the Sharks, whose leader is boxer Bernardo Vasquez (David Alvarez). Unlike the 1961 film, the Sharks don’t appear to be outnumbered by the Jets, and when the Jets violate the Sharks’ turf, a rumble ensues only to be broken up by Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James). Later that night, there’s a community dance. Bernardo warns his sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), that he’ll be vigilant about any gringos who want to dance with her.
Still, I guess you can’t have everything. The musical and dance set pieces all work for me. However, the characterization of the dance organizer in this film doesn’t stand up to the characterization of John Astin in the 1961 film. Maria’s date for the dance, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), is played a little differently in this film. It was better but still left something to be desired.
I get it. These stories, both in 1961 and 2021, are dance musicals; so, there’s a suspension of belief necessary to follow the story. I viewed the 1961 film before viewing the Spielberg film. I found it anachronistic and, frankly, a little bit silly. In this respect, Spielberg’s film is much, much better. Spielberg’s film makes the love affair of Tony and Maria a tad more believable than the 1961 film. Yet, I still find the romance, taking place over two days, somewhat far-fetched, although admittedly possible.
Bottom line: Spielberg brings dramatic tension to a story that is not wholly reliant on music and dance, and I found the story much more believable than the 1961 film. Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking, you should enjoy Mr. Spielberg’s official entry into the genre if you like dance musicals.