‘West Side Story’ Is Another Steven Spielberg Classic

It’s interesting to look at this current phase of Steven Spielberg-directed films, which, let’s say, starts after a three-year gap post-Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There are eight films in this era, so far, and most of them are … “good.” Warhorse is a good movie. Bridge of Spies, also a good movie. The Post, good movie! But of this era, the only one, until now, that feels like it will be mentioned as a Spielberg classic is Lincoln. The others? It’s weird, it almost feels like he didn’t know what else to do. “Well, I need to do something with my time, and I’m kind of out of the dinosaur and archeologist game, and the kids seem to like Ready Player One, so I guess I’ll do that.” Lincoln was nine years ago so this marks the longest stretch we’ve gone without a Spielberg classic. Previously, the stretch that comes the closest is between 2005’s War of the Worlds and Munich up to 2012’s Lincoln.

Anyway, this all changes with Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. This is a Spielberg classic.

West Side Story feels like Spielberg is in control and knows exactly what he wants to do. And other than Lincoln (both of these films were written by Tony Kushner), the others don’t quite feel that way. Almost like there’s not quite the enthusiasm that we see on display like we see in West Side Story. It feels like the difference between what Spielberg agreed to make and what he wanted to make.

Look, admittedly, yes, I was disappointed when Spielberg passed on a fifth Indiana Jones movie to remake West Side Story. It seemed like a puzzling decision. I mean, sure, his heart wasn’t in a new Indiana Jones movie and, under those circumstances, it’s for the best he handed the whip to James Mangold. But why on Earth did Spielberg want to remake a movie people consider an undeniable classic? And the easiest answer seems to be he remade West Side Story because he wanted to remake West Side Story and if Steven Spielberg really wants to do something, well, the end result is probably going to be really good. Spielberg has been wanting to make this movie for a very long time, so you know the whole, “one for them, one for me,” theory? Spielberg has given us so many classics over the years, this kind of feels like, “33 for us, one for him.” I think, by now, he deserves to make this if that’s what he wants to do. Let Spielberg have his dream movie.

At the premiere, Spielberg made some opening remarks about the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, who was obviously on everyone’s mind, then we were off. And from its opening moments, West Side Story is electric. Everything just pops. Yeah, I was a bit concerned this might all be hokey. That maybe there was no way to make those early scenes – of boys running around snapping, singing about being a Jet – could possibly be, today, cool. But Spielberg pulls it off. These are cool scenes. It’s very early on in this movie (it feels like such a throwback film I was tempted to use the word “picture” there instead of “movie”) that you’re hit smack dab in the face with the feeling of, oh, wow, Spielberg pulled this off. And from then on, you just go with it. It feels from another world and another time. It feels like watching something both modern, yet something that has to be from another era.

Is it an updated version? Or did Spielberg just remake the Robert Wise directed version from 1961? I guess the answer is a little both of both. It feels very similar, only made with modern production values. The major elements of the story are not changed (Tony and Maria do not get on a spaceship together at the end of this movie), yet there are enough interesting, let’s say, tweaks, that pivots the story, not in a different direction, but a different angle or perspective. Take, for instance, the role of Anybodys, who, in the original version was played in a heightened, “Oh, golly gee, why I outta,” kind of way. Now, Anybodys (played by Ezra Menas), gets into a screaming match with the Jets after being called “a girl” one too many times, denouncing that gender, then proceeds to beat the living hell out of their antagonist. (This scene is shot, overhead, with the same force as Indiana Jones just whaling on a Nazi.) Or the role of Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), who, when we first meet him, is meek. This is probably the biggest departure from the original movie. He, like Tony (Ansel Elgort, who, along with Rachel Zegler as Maria, play the star-crossed lovers at the heart of this story that cause a lot of problems for a lot of people), are just nice guys who don’t see what all the fighting is about. It’s only after he witnessing the events of the movie unfold do we see a change in Chino.

I do wonder what Rita Moreno would have said in 1961, after winning an Oscar for playing Anita, would have said of someone told her, “60 years from now they will make another one of these movies and you will also play a major role.” Heck, honestly, she might get nominated for another Oscar here for playing Valentina, who owns the pharmacy and is the heart and soul of this movie. Speaking of Anita (here played by Ariana DeBose), like Moreno’s showstopper in the original, “America,” remains an absolute highlight. Like, seriously, wow. And Spielberg was wise not to set this one on a rooftop at night, instead opting for a different take on the production, outside, on the streets, in the daylight. This scene pops (there’s that word again) off the screen in lush colors and ends with an eruption from the audience who will not be able to resist.

Look, I’ll let the West Side Story superfans debate which movie is better. I suspect the consensus will be along the lines of “the original is the classic, but this new version is a worthy update.” And, yes, the original is gorgeous, but Spielberg is a master of emotion and what makes a narrative work. And there were aspects I liked better in this version because of that. For instance, I truly believe Spielberg does a better job of setting up the rumble and conveying to the audience what’s at stake. By the time it arrives, it feels like an event. As opposed to the original, which as more of a, well, the Jets and Sharks always seem to be going at each other and here they go again, at least before things go terribly south. But, again, I’ll leave that debate to others. But there’s little debate that this West Side Story will go down as a Steven Spielberg Classic. Hot damn.

‘West Side Story’ opens in theaters on December 10th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.