West Side Story is an astonishing triumph (and Steven Spielberg’s 2nd best film about sharks)

If any director has earned the right to do whatever he wants, it’s Steven Spielberg. The famed auteur is on a five decade (!) winning streak that encompasses Oscar-winning historical dramas (Schindler’s List, The Post, Munich), blockbuster commercial entertainment (Jurassic Park, Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and everything in between (Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can). Nobody else can claim such a sterling filmography. Yet, when it was announced that Spielberg would be helming a remake of the beloved musical, West Side Story, many had their doubts. Would his virgin foray into the genre be a step too far?

He certainly had big shoes to fill. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ rousing stage show, first performed in 1957, remains a towering popular classic of the medium, buoyed by some of Broadway’s greatest ever show tunes courtesy of Leonard Bernstein and the late Stephen Sondheim. Beyond that, any new cinematic version of West Side Story also has to compete with our Technicolor memories of a quintessential Hollywood classic: it’s cherished 1961 adaptation, which swept the Oscars and continues to conquer the hearts of musical aficionados in every generation since it’s release. This is a tall order for anyone, even someone of the caliber of Spielberg.

As it turns out, we shouldn’t have worried. Spielberg’s West Side Story is a knockout blend of old-school showmanship and modern sensibilities. It isn’t just a lavish and dynamically orchestrated remake though, Spielberg has crafted a genuinely thoughtful update that fixes the original’s outmoded (and problematic) elements, while still retaining its vibrant essence. If we look at the stunning musical numbers he inserted into films like 1941 and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we’d realize that he’s been a song and dance enthusiast from the start. Now, over half a century into his career, he’s finally unleashed that inner musical theater nerd to exuberantly bring to life this saga of star-crossed lovers and gangland warfare that mixes knife fights with ballet twirls.

If you aren’t already familiar, the story is essentially Romeo and Juliet transported to the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side circa the 1950s. Reformed teenage hoodlum Tony (Ansel Elgort), former leader of white gang The Jets, falls in love at first sight with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of his sworn rival Bernardo (David Alvarez), the head of Puerto Rican gang The Sharks. The tragic trajectory is fairly predictable, but that doesn’t stop you from being totally engrossed. But besides the romance and racial tension, Spielberg has subtly added a new layer of social commentary – the gentrification that backdrops a meaningless, adolescent turf war.

The film opens with a sweeping overhead survey of the rubble-strewn ruin of a neighborhood, punctuated by an ominous sign that reads “New York City Housing Authority Slum Clearance”. This is the home of the The Jets and Sharks, who are scrambling for shrinking territory. Yet they can’t see that they’re both being muscled out of the city not by each other, but by callous financial and institutional forces that view them all – white or brown – as low-income vermin. The neighborhood we see was paved to build the Lincoln Center, as part of a wider push for “urban renewal” that erased whole neighborhoods and ways of life. Spielberg is underlining the futility of the gang feud but also the desperation driving it – this devoured land is of immense importance to its residents.

Working once again with screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg has revitalized West Side Story by giving its cast of characters more depth, insight and drama – with few crucial tweaks. That’s not to say that its earlier versions should be tossed aside (they are masterpieces). Nevertheless, first and foremost, the whitewashing of the 1961 version is gone. Here, the Puerto Rican characters are all portrayed by Latinx actors. The film goes further in its reach for cultural authenticity by delivering a flowing mix of English and un-subtitled Spanish dialogue. Spielberg reasons that audiences who don’t speak both languages will be able to follow the emotional logic of any scene through the actors’ cadence and expressions. He’s right, but it’s still a bold risk for a big budget tentpole.

But where a musical must truly shine, is of course, in its musical numbers. And in this regard, the film is an astonishing triumph. Spielberg has always been an expert at nimble camera blocking – his gift for legibly communicating complex sequences of movement on a massive scale is unparalleled. The translation of that gift from action to staging a musical is thrilling. Spielberg’s camera races around his dancers, mirroring the physicality of Justin Peck’s stunning choreography through the ecstatic slide and swing of his craft. Some numbers use virtuosic long takes to privilege a clear vantage on the spectacle, while others miraculously crosscut across time and space. The fights are enriched with more menacing heft, even while the gangs still twirl and jump through the streets when they cause trouble.

The real star of the show though, is newcomer Rachel Zegler – a high school musical theater student and YouTuber – who Spielberg plucked from the relative unknown. She is absolutely marvelous as Maria, delivering an instant superstar performance, backed by wonderful vocal ability. She radiates charm, intelligence and lovestruck innocence. She is a once in a generation talent. In the supporting roles, Alvarez is excellent as Shark leader Bernardo and Ariana DeBose even better as his brassy fiancée Anita, while Mike Faist’s charged work as Jet leader Riff is a real revelation. If there is a weak link, it’s certainly leading man Ansel Elgort. Even without the cloud of his sexual assault scandal, Elgort is simply too bland for this role. While certainly serviceable, the movie star is frequently overshadowed by a cast of more charismatic upstarts.

In another clever little update, the kindly pharmacist from the original, Doc, has been replaced by a character named Valentina, played by Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film). The casting is a sentimental throwback that Spielberg works to his advantage – by not only making the story’s voice of wisdom a Puerto Rican actress – but also someone whose persona is tinged by the joy and tragedy of the original. It exemplifies the deft balancing act between the classical and the contemporary that Spielberg has accomplished. This latest version of West Side Story is a vivid, sweeping, top-tier piece of pop that will make your heart sing and your body dance.

Rating: 8.5/10

Opens wide in Singapore cinemas on January 6th 2022.