Review: Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” Soars As One of the Last Great Storytellers Paints His Masterpiece
Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” asks the question Imagine if you could do life over knowing what you know now.
So Spielberg has reimagined Robert Wise and Arthur Laurents’s movie of the Broadway musical 60 years later. Actually, 64 years later, because “WSS” opened on Broadway in 1957. Lincoln Center did not exist on Manhattan’s West Side. The world of the Sharks and Jets was real. It had yet to be paved over for the future.
It’s six decades later. We can look back at it now that that world was wiped out. Someone I mentioned this to yesterday didn’t even realize there had been a neighborhood where Lincoln Center stands, that people lived there.
Well, they did, which is why Tony Kushner’s resonant screenplay and the lavish set built in New Jersey to look like New York in 1957 instantly give the Spielberg film weight and verisimilitude. From the very beginning when we see the wrecking balls, the signs that say “Future Home of Lincoln Center,” you know that Spielberg and co. have got it right. It’s thrilling to know they understand.
In this growing rubble come the Jets and the Sharks, Tony and Maria and all their friends. It feels as though Spielberg has always been waiting for this moment despite his decades of authoritative, big budget filmmaking. Did he always have this in mind when “ET” was phoning home, and Richard Dreyfus was talking to aliens, when Oskar Schindler was saving Jews, and Tom Hanks was saving Private Ryan? It sure seems like it. “West Side Story” 2.0 is the perfect distillation of Spielberg, combining fantasy and violence.
To get beyond the detailed nuanced production we’ll have to see this movie twice, But let’s get to the show. Spielberg has done everything right, the opposite of what the cowards who mounted “WSS” on Broadway in 2019 did. He used Bernstein-Sondheim music, the Jerome Robbins dancing, the Laurents story. Kushner expanded, deepened every character with history and motivation. Early tweets declared this movie better than the original! But it’s not it can’t be. It’s just that the filmmakers had the gift of hindsight. They had a text to work from, whereas Laurents et al built it from the ground up.
The actors: I’m sorry but the entire ensemble is perfect, starting with Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria. I’m so glad I said from the outset that Elgort was right for this job. I saw it when he was in “Baby Driver.” Zegler is the find of finds. Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist are sensational as Anita and Riff. Audiences are not going to stop talking about them. Brian D’Arcy James and Corey Stoll are memorable as Krupke and Schrank, D’Arcy James is beautifully certain and perplexed about how to handle his gangs as the tractors and forklifts make way for a new world.
And then there is Rita Moreno, who won her Oscar 60 years for playing Anita, and now returns as Valentina, who runs the corner store. Spielberg gives her the gift of a lifetime (she’s 90 now) as the wise owl. And he resets the show’s most famous song, “Somewhere,” as an anthem in her voice for all the ages. She’s going to get another Oscar. You can’t not have a lump in your throat when she sings it.
Spielberg often is criticized for too much corniness, or not being serious when he needs to be. A master filmmaker who we’re not even appreciating now, he is taken for granted a lot of the time. He’s had his masterworks– ET, Schindler, Ryan, Close Encounters, Minority Report, War of the Worlds. But now he’s painted his masterpiece. (Plus he brought back the corner of 31st and 6th, where Gimbels, Willoughys cameras and the hot dog shop used to be. I cried.) “WSS” 2.0 is an 11/10. See it on the biggest screen you find.