The music and lyrics, written by Leonard Bernstein and a green Stephen Sondheim, have remarkable staying power despite being over 60 years old. West Side Story is an immigrant story as much as it’s a love story, and every immigrant story is a battle between a dream and a reality. This is captured in iconic songs like America, where Anita praises her new home and its possibilities while Bernardo reminds her of the limited opportunities and poverty that they live with. Riff’s only a few generations removed from being an immigrant himself, but per a dressing down from police detective Schrank (Corey Stoll), all the talented or motivated Irish left this neighborhood long ago. Riff and Tony and their friends are the dregs, the remainder left behind and now standing in the way of the next wave of immigrants. The dream is alive for Puerto Ricans, but curdled for the Irish. One side fights to secure a future position, the other to hold onto what little they have left. Meanwhile, factional warfare drives down property values, thus allowing speculators and developers to get a great deal and shove them all out. The original material is evergreen enough that Spielberg and screenwriter Kushner don’t need to update anything major, and thus risk dating their film for future generations. The exception is a trans male, or the 1950’s equivalent, character named Anybodys (iris menas). The film doesn’t carve out a big musical number for them, but instead takes care to find Anybodys lingering around the outside. Desperate to fit in with a group that doesn’t want them, their puppy-like need for acceptance provides subtle pathos in a film where characters otherwise sing what they’re feeling.
Where West Side Story wows the most is with Spielberg’s direction. The knock on West Side Story is the dance-fighting, a joke that Seth MacFarlane TV comedies keep coming back to. It is absurd on its face that the Jets, rough-necked bruisers in jean vests, would pirouette through the streets as a show of force, but the film quickly weaves a spell where this display of raw athleticism does the job. More well-versed theater fans would be able to contrast the ballet of the Jets with the vigorous Latin moves of the Sharks. For this novice, the different styles create distinction between the groups, both of whom use flying elbows and feet to build space between their rivals. This is most apparent in a stunning sequence in a dance hall, where each side wars for the floor with spinning dresses and pointed toes. This is as finely considered as any of Spielberg’s famous action set pieces, with an always moving camera that finds the principals in the crowd and stuffs the frame with an overload of visual information.
A film is lucky to have one breakout performance. Here, three unknown actors turn themselves into stars. DeBose and Faist could both be called the winners of the film, as they each run the full gamut from start to finish. Anita’s extreme liveliness continuously gives her all of Spielberg’s focus, and her yellow dress during the America number is as memorable as costuming gets. Later heartbreak for her gets translated into deep emotion and furious venom. Faist plays Riff as a junkyard dog, if the dog was a yappy terrier. His rail-thin body type and a consequences-be-damned manner make him seem less dangerous than he is, but he’s committed to a vicious lifestyle. There’s only one way things can end for a character like him, and the way that Faist plays that inevitable moment is revelatory. In the third breakout performance is Zegler, who is stuck with a tough ingenue role that the story doesn’t have a tremendous amount of interest in. Love at first sight, ludicrous as it is, is as hard a thing to sell as anything. Spielberg and Kushner wisely make the romance feel peripheral to the gang war, such that the two plots exist irrespective of each other until they collide, and that lessens Zegler’s burden. Her job, magnificently achieved, is to look the part, and her poise and enthusiasm here are guaranteed to send Zegler towards the next thing.
Maria’s partner in most scenes, Elgort’s Tony, is the film’s primary stumbling block. The actor does a fine job exhibiting a degree of calm and cool that would’ve made him the Jets’ leader before he went to jail, and the feral intensity that sent him there does convincingly come out at a pivotal moment. However, his singing is immediately recognizable as less-than his costars. Elgort’s a physical presence well-suited to the choreography, but he’s not doing Zegler a lot of favors and Faist blows him off the screen in their shared scenes. One can’t help but imagine a more affecting film if Spielberg went younger in his casting, not only with Elgort. The Jets get their hands on a gun at one point, and their immediate reaction is to play-act shootouts amongst the construction. These are barely adults, but Zegler’s the only one who looks like a teenager.
That said, West Side Story’s problem is not its lack of affecting content. Per big emotive musicals, this is a film that gets the water works moving, and in many different ways. Spielberg threads joy into the exuberant numbers and a desperate longing into the sad numbers. Rita Moreno returns to the film for which she won an Oscar, playing Anita, though here she plays a shopkeeper who’s letting Tony stay in her basement. Moreno’s Valentina could’ve credibly been nominated again, as she’s given many of West Side Story’s biggest moments. Kushner deliberately changed the song line-up to bolster her role, and unsurprisingly, the venerable icon makes his trust in her pay off. West Side Story is brimming with cinematic gifts from its greatest pop auteur, who can now add musicals to his long and varied career. That he’s managed to make one of his best films so late into his run is a challenge to his old friend Scorsese. Let these two cinematic war horses keep prodding each other to greatness well into their eighth decade. A-