Tragic romances never go out of style and 'West Side Story' is a soaring take on a classic

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Steven Spielberg
    Steven Spielberg
    American filmmaker
  • Ariana DeBose
    American actress, singer, dancer
  • Rachel Zegler
    American singer and actress
  • Ansel Elgort
    American actor
  • Mike Faist
    American actor, born 1991
  • Rita Moreno
    Rita Moreno
    Puerto Rican singer, dancer and actress

It’s been a big year for musicals translated to film: “In the Heights” and “tick … tick … Boom!” made the transition successfully, largely through overwhelming intensity on the part of the cast and filmmakers.

This is to say that in both cases it didn’t feel like simply pointing cameras at a stage production. They felt like movies.

Now comes another version of “West Side Story,” a true classic of the stage and screen. The 1961 adaptation won 10 Oscars, including one for Rita Moreno, who appears in the new film.

It’s old-time show tunes and staging, acrobatic gang rumbles and fire-escape serenades. It’s what you think about when you think “Broadway musical.”

Steven Spielberg's direction is soaring

Other than updating the casting to be more inclusive — the original film featured Natalie Wood and George Chakiris as Puerto Rican characters — is there really a need for another version of the story, based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”?

Wow, Steven Spielberg makes fantastic-looking movies.

That’s the answer.

Spielberg retains much of the staging of the musical, which in another director's hands might make it feel less imaginative. But the cinematic aspects of the film are soaring — genuinely so in the opening and closing scenes, with the camera descending into and then rising above the streets of New York where the action takes place.

Other shots — when the Jets and the Sharks face off in a rumble, marching toward each other as long, menacing shadows, for instance — are sublime. It makes this “West Side Story” not a reinvention to retrofit the story into a film. It’s expert filmmaking that also allows the talented cast to do its thing. Rachel Zegler, amazingly in her first role, and Ariana DeBose are particularly good.

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ "West Side Story," directed by Steven Spielberg.
Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ "West Side Story," directed by Steven Spielberg.

Not everything works. Ansel Elgort is a better singer and dancer than you might expect, but his underplaying of Tony is underwhelming. But if there’s any question whether the endeavor was worthwhile, Spielberg answers it with some of his most inspired direction.

From 'E.T.' to 'Indiana Jones': Every Steven Spielberg movie, ranked

The story remains largely the same. The Jets, white kids living in New York in 1957, violently protect their turf against all comers. The latest to challenge them are members of the Sharks, Puerto Rican kids whose presence both threatens and enrages the Jets — and, to some extent, Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James). Their fear and anger toward anyone who doesn’t look like them spelled out explicitly in one number still resonates.

Both gangs are also fighting time. The city is tearing down their neighborhoods to build the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and a campus for Fordham University; Spielberg frames some of the shots of the results of the wrecking ball like a bombed-out Dresden.

Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose give knockout performances

Riff (Mike Faist) is the leader of the Jets. Tony has left the gang, after a stint in prison. He works for Valentina (Moreno) at Doc’s Drugstore and lives in the basement. Riff wants Tony back, at least temporarily, to help negotiate terms of a rumble at a dance.

Bernardo (David Alvarez) leads the Sharks. He and his girlfriend, Anita (DeBose), and his sister, Maria (Zegler), live in a small apartment. They’re all going to the dance, as well — it’s a sort of social experiment, the city’s attempt to calm things between the rival gangs. That goes about as well as you’d expect.

A reluctant Tony attends, meets Maria and sets the stage for a tragic romance. (Sorry, but a 400-year-old story is spoiler proof.)

Tony Kushner, who wrote “Angels in America,” wrote the screenplay. (He also wrote “Munich” and “Lincoln” for Spielberg.) It’s updated in some places, including characters speaking Spanish without English subtitles.

He also creates the character of Valentina for Moreno. If you thought this was just a nice little cameo for Moreno to connect this film to the 1961 version, it’s not. It’s much more substantial. She is beautifully affecting as someone who has seen a lot and knows where anger leads.

Zegler’s voice is amazing. But two of the supporting characters really shine. Faist’s Riff grows over the course of the film, his constant anger and fear falling into greater context; Faist embodies that evolution. DeBose as Anita, meanwhile, gives a powerhouse performance, the best combination of singing, dancing and acting in the film. It’s a real star turn.

“West Side Story” is timeless, because of the source material. Tragic romances never go out of style. Spielberg’s version successfully makes the classic contemporary.

'West Side Story' 4 stars

Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★

Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose.

Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.

Note: In theaters Dec. 10.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk. Subscribe to the weekly movies newsletter.

Subscribe to azcentral.com today. What are you waiting for?

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'West Side Story' movie review: Spielberg's soaring take on a classic

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting