West Side Story

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The very idea of Steven Spielberg making a musical is exciting. The director has worked across most every other genre to great success. Now he takes one of the most beloved stage shows of all time – that was turned into a classic film in 1961, no less – and brings it alive all over again. Nicely balancing a classic feel with some innovative filmmaking techniques, his West Side Story is bound to satisfy fans of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents musical while enticing newcomers at the same time.

Ansel Elgort is Tony, a member of the New York street gang known as the Jets. He's gotten out of prison for nearly killing a guy in a fight and now wants a clean slate. At a dance one night, he meets a lovely Puerto Rican girl named Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler). The attraction between them is immediate, to the chagrin of Maria's brother Bernardo (David Alvarez). It doesn't help matters that Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks, the Jets' rival gang. He insists that Maria and Tony not see each other. They don't listen, and before long, the Sharks and the Jets have formally scheduled a “rumble” to settle the matter.

The story is well-known by now. West Side Story respects it, avoiding the temptation to fix what isn't broken. Spielberg, shooting on 35mm film instead of digital, gives the picture a vintage look and tone. You can tell that he not only has fondness for that era, but also for the ambiance that screen musicals of the '60s had. A lot of filmmakers would have felt the need to modernize the remake, to give it a layer of contemporary flash, kind of like what Rob Marshall did with the Oscar-winning Chicago.

Instead of going that route, Spielberg maintains the retro vibe, then brings his trademark creativity to how he stages each scene. Sometimes he takes advantage of modern cinematography techniques, having the camera glide through dance sequences to create the sensation that the viewer is in the midst of them. Other times, he concocts imaginative visuals to highlight what songs are about. “I Feel Pretty,” for example, takes place in a department store that eventually morphs into a hall of mirrors. The result is that he makes West Side Story his own, bringing a distinct sensibility to the movie.

Great performances are abundant. Rachel Zegler is a real discovery. She brings tons of emotion to Maria, especially in the later scenes, as the character gets caught up in all the drama swirling around her. This young actress has a bright future ahead. Ariana DeBose (who was so good in the otherwise dreadful The Prom) is remarkable as Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend. She gets a couple powerful moments during the last half-hour and tears the roof off the place, so to speak. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar as Anita in the '61 version, brings a sense of wisdom and quiet strength to the role of Valentina, the owner of a shop where the Jets hang out. Mike Faist, meanwhile, is perfect as Riff, Tony's perpetually angry best friend.

On every technical level, West Side Story excels, too. Outstanding costume and production design thoroughly plunge the viewer into 1950s NYC. Choreography in the musical numbers is stellar, and of course, you can't go wrong with those famous songs. Every shot in the film is stunning, guaranteeing that you never want to divert your eyes from the screen. From top to bottom, this is a high-quality project.

There is exactly one thing holding the picture back from true greatness, and his name is Ansel Elgort. The Baby Driver actor is a bit of a black hole as Tony. Aside from being a not-great singer, he comes off as bland when performing opposite the magnetic Zegler. She's far more interesting than he is. Elgort isn't bad per se; it's more that he's decent when literally everyone else is phenomenal.

That does not sink the movie. Enough about West Side Story is sufficiently spectacular to ensure big-time entertainment. Steven Spielberg can now add musicals to the list of genres he can do exceptionally well.

out of four

West Side Story is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.. The running time is 2 hours and 36 minutes.