Movie review

The musical “West Side Story” is forever young. Leonard Bernstein’s glorious music celebrates the youthful ability to run and leap and whirl because you just can’t hold still; its romance takes place between two teens struck by a bolt of doomed love, not yet old enough to know that after tonight comes tomorrow. And it works best when the audience believes that youth. The most moving performance of “West Side Story” that I ever saw was at a local public high school, years ago; the kids couldn’t handle many of the high notes but oh, did they understand the emotion. I thought of that production while watching Steven Spielberg’s dazzling new movie of “West Side Story” this week. His Maria, radiant newcomer Rachel Zegler, was just 18 during filming, and her performance exudes wonder, joy and tragedy, poignantly reminding us that everything has a first time.

Famously inspired by “Romeo and Juliet,” this tale of two rival New York gangs — one white, one Puerto Rican — “West Side Story” has been around longer than a lot of us have been alive: first on Broadway in 1957, and previously filmed in 1961. That movie, co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (the dance genius behind the original choreography), won 10 Oscars and has been beloved by many, including me, for decades. But a new “West Side Story” movie isn’t a terrible idea. Though the original remains brilliant as a dance film, it’s aged badly in other ways: the casting of mostly non-Latino actors (in cringingly dark makeup) in the Puerto Rican roles; the too-obvious use of singers dubbing the actors for many of the songs; the bland central performance by Richard Beymer as Tony, who wasn’t remotely believable as a former gang leader.

Enter Spielberg, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) and choreographer Justin Peck. And while an early trailer gave the impression that this “West Side Story” would simply be a more appropriately cast remake of the original film, this team has created a version entirely their own. The music and songs remain the same, but Kushner’s screenplay is very different from the 1961 version. He grounds the film in real events: the late-1950s destruction of a low-income Manhattan neighborhood in order to pave the way for Lincoln Center (the opening scenes of the 1961 movie are shot among this wreckage, but it isn’t a theme of the film), displacing numerous people. This “West Side Story” isn’t just about the death of three young people, but the death of a neighborhood; the filming feels less like a soundstage and more like a real time and place.

Many of the characters feel more richly drawn this time around — Tony (Ansel Elgort) now has a backstory that explains his reluctance to be drawn back into the gang; Maria is given much more autonomy; Riff (Mike Faist) is less carefree and more damaged — and one is changed entirely: Doc, the drugstore owner, is now Doc’s widow Valentina, played by the Anita of the previous film, Rita Moreno. And the Puerto Rican characters frequently speak Spanish to each other, as feels natural; it’s not subtitled, but the emotions behind the words are clear.

It’s a thoughtful and interesting screenplay, though Kushner occasionally makes his subtext too obvious (these characters make a lot of statements); if you know the original “West Side Story” pretty well, watching this one is fascinating, like getting reacquainted with an old friend who now looks quite different. Likewise, Peck’s choreography retains the spirit of Robbins’ creativity — how could it not? — while finding new, fresh movement. These dances feel massive — the Dance at the Gym is a volcano of whirling skirts; “America” spills out into the streets — and watching them on a big screen is glorious; you feel breathless as they end, caught up in the exuberance of the movement.

Not every decision made by Spielberg and his team seemed exactly right to my eye; most notably, making the brilliant jazz of “Cool” less of a dance and more of a dramatic scene (set, oddly, on a pier) felt like a lost opportunity. But so much about this “West Side Story” works exactly as it should, and it’s full of perfect little details: There’s a touch of Shakespeare in the balcony scene, and a wonderful throwaway moment in the “Tonight” quintet as Maria and the Jets pass each other, neither noticing the other. Its young, mostly little-known cast is a joy: David Alvarez’s quicksilver dancing and sizzling charisma as Bernardo; Ariana DeBose’s warmly knowing Anita; Faist’s nervy, shadowy Riff; and most of all Zegler’s brave Maria, who grows up before our eyes in just a day, and who holds the movie — and us — in her hands. (Elgort, though he has sweet chemistry with Zegler, is the one slight disappointment; he’s a little too thin-voiced for Tony’s songs.)  

And the 89-year-old Moreno, creating an effortless bridge between this movie and the previous one, gives us a gift late in the film that had me reduced to tears; it’s a deeply touching choice that I won’t spoil. I worried, before the screening, that this movie wouldn’t find that magic that “West Side Story,” with its exquisitely soaring music and operatic emotions, so often finds; that somehow the contemporary screen would diminish it. I needn’t have. Like that high school production I saw long ago, it took me somewhere; how lovely to visit that place once more.  

“West Side Story” ★★★½ (out of four)

With Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Mike Faist, Brian D’Arcy James, Corey Stoll. Directed by Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. 156 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking. Opens Dec. 9 at multiple theaters.