For forty years, Steven Spielberg could do no wrong. Jaws (1975) not only defined the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster but also led to a virtually uninterrupted string of hits from the director. On the rare occasions Spielberg made a misstep, he immediately course corrected with movies that would solidify his popularity with a new generation–1979’s John Belushi WWII comedy 1941 led to the one-two punch of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) while 1991’s underperforming Peter Pan reimagining Hook begat Jurassic Park two summers later. As a pioneer of the Movie Brat generation along with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Spielberg was one of the first directors to forge his path through his pure love of film–displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of the art form through his obsession with sheer spectacle and epic drama whether through action set pieces like Saving Private Ryan’s (1998) Normandy invasion and Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s (1977) finale or the quieter character moments of The Color Purple (1985), Schindler’s List (1993), and his other forays into Oscar-worthy drama.
In a career awash in records and awards, Spielberg achieved the pinnacle of his artistry in 2005, cutting through the noise of Post-9/11 America to deliver cinema’s two most definitive statements about the War on Terror: the sci-fi blockbuster War of the Worlds that became a hit despite the couch-jumping antics of its star Tom Cruise and the thorny and controversial terrorism drama Munich detailing the spiritual toll and ethical quandaries of Mossad’s retaliation after the 1972 Olympic massacre of Jewish athletes. Then, as the country experienced its own political fissures, Spielberg faltered. His brand of unifying and humanist cinema no longer fit the national mood. What resulted after the phoned in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 was a decade of Spielberg throat clearing as he alternated between uneven CGI misfires that seemed like the director’s insistence he was hip to the kids (2011’s Eurocentric The Adventures of Tintin, 2016’s disastrous Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG, 2018’s just-fine postmodern dystopian pastiche Ready Player One) and expertly executed proclamations of his correct politics in the Obama Era that sacrificed the director’s trademark warmth and complexity for grandstanding and awards contention (2011’s War Horse, 2012’s Lincoln, 2015’s Bridge of Spies, 2017’s The Post).
Though flashes of Spielberg’s mastery of the craft pepper this laundry list of minor films, as Armond White recently argued in a book-length eulogy for Spielberg’s artistry, the magic was gone. So too was audience interest. From 1977-1986, Spielberg or his frequent collaborator Lucas helmed the five-highest grossing films and either directed or produced half of the top fourteen. From 2011 to now, only Lincoln and Ready Player One cracked the $100 million mark. Spielberg has remained a stalwart defender of original properties (War of the Worlds, his Indiana Jones sequels, and 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park aside). As a result, Spielberg’s decision to direct his first musical with a remake of 1961’s West Side Story in a vocal attempt to rescue the classic from its retroactive wokescold sins seems like a further descent into filmmaking desperation. However, the project not only ranks with Spielberg’s finest but also proves one of the most nuanced explorations of identity politics ever put to screen.
In revisiting West Side Story sixty years after its theatrical release, Spielberg meticulously preserves the elements of the film that led it to become one of the few bright spots during the twilight years of Hollywood’s studio era. The story still has its origins in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the Irish-Italian-Polish Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks as the Montagues and Capulets. Fresh from a stint in prison, Tony (Ansel Elgort), a reformed Jet, meets Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a school dance, much to the chagrin of her brother and leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez). Beyond some minor reordering and arranging, Spielberg leaves the original music intact in deference to the cultural impact that the Broadway collaboration between Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim made on musical theatre and film since its stage debut in 1957 with the only addition an impromptu singing of Puerto Rico’s national anthem by the Sharks early in the film.
Yet, Spielberg has undertaken a drastic overhaul of West Side Story’s dialogue and narrative that roots it in a more realistic world than original directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s brightly hued Technicolor version of Manhattan’s former blighted neighborhood turned prime real estate. In collaboration with Tony Kushner (the author of the groundbreaking LGBT+ play Angels in America and screenwriter of Munich and Lincoln), Spielberg avoids apologetics and histrionic PC-revisionism, refusing easy interpretation. Even before the film’s yearlong COVID delay, press coverage of the production obsessed over Spielberg’s commitment to casting Latin-X actors (and foregoing subtitles for Spanish dialogue), a sharp contrast to its predecessor’s use of brownface for members of the Sharks, which was an unfortunate but routine practice at the time now removed from context in the era of Internet outrage. What could have been a superficial PR move becomes a necessary change in Spielberg’s reimagining. Contrary to the sullied reputation of Wise and Robbins’s film and the media’s fixation on actors’ skin tones, West Side Story was always about a society that pits two rungs of the working class against each other in a city of haves, a long-neglected subtext that becomes the update’s primary thrust. Rediscovering his gift for multifaceted politics dating back to his Jaws days (and the subject of numerous subpar pandemic hot takes), Spielberg presents the true villains of this West Side as neither Jet nor Shark, but the white liberals whose cultural superiority led to the gentrification of working-class ethnic neighborhoods for the site of Lincoln Center. As the camera cranes toward a sign touting the merits of the new cultural mecca in the film’s first minutes, Spielberg directly implicates his middlebrow audiences while breaking through the deficiencies of the milquetoast leftism that has defined his career for the past decade.
Given Spielberg’s more realistic take on the material, the other tweet-worthy changes seem less like pandering to the mob and more an intentional focus on aesthetic unity that privileges gritty fight sequences, period-accurate gang attire, and characters torn between their violent choices and allegiance to their heritage. The Oscar-winning breakout of the original film, Rita Moreno, spent the past few years as the posterchild for yesteryear’s now-demonized diversity blindspots, regaling the press with stories of how Wise, Robbins, and their collaborators darkened her skin tone for her performance as Anita. In his reimagining, Spielberg creates a new role for Moreno as Valentina–the Puerto Rican wife of the now-deceased pharmacist Doc, who was Tony’s confidante in both the original film and musical. While the plot does indeed kill off a white man to make room for a woman of color, its construction of Valentina as a link between warring factions is Spielberg’s greatest asset in his presentation of the divisiveness New York’s high society has implemented to maintain its dominion. Neither a member of the inner circle nor of the lower rungs to which the futureless juveniles from the Sharks and Jets who patronize her pharmacy belong, Valentina acts as the voice of reason and keeper of hope for unity between the gangs, a role Spielberg underscores by reassigning the musical’s classic “Somewhere” to her as the film’s finale. As expected, Moreno is phenomenal, playing off The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver’s Elgort and relative newcomers Zegler and Ariana DeBose (who assumes the role of Anita in the remake) with an unassuming sincerity that highlights the talents of her millennial and Gen-Z costars while reminding audiences of Hollywood’s better days.
Among Spielberg’s alterations, West Side Story purists and certain types of culture warriors may balk the most at the director’s shift of the character of Anybody from a tomboy loner in the original to a clearly transgender character played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas–which has remained the second most popular fodder for thinkpieces on the film. Like Wise’s other seminal musical The Sound of Music, West Side Story has long been a staple of queer culture, as comfortable at an LBTQ+ film festival as on the family matinee program at an urban revival house. Spielberg’s choice runs the risk of engaging his recent easy politics, but the director’s artistic instincts prevail. In his West Side, Anybody becomes much more than a side character, an individual with allegiance to the Jets whose outsider status helps make Tony’s pleas for deescalation a potential reality despite the film’s tragic finale. The explicitness of the casting choice also allows Spielberg to tap into the queerness that has lurked beneath the surface of Hollywood since its inception, considered deviant in the repressive Montgomery Clift/Rock Hudson/James Dean 50s under the thumb of J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy while willfully neglected in the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” windbag traditionalism of today.
The greatest irony of Spielberg’s West Side Story is that it took a remake to initiate the return to form of Hollywood’s greatest director. The second is the film’s dismal box-office performance when West Side Story is a movie made to showcase the shock and awe of the big screen. Spielberg may be a musical novice, but he understands the grammar of filmmaking better than anyone. His staging is never showy, but fully immerses his audience in the neighborhood central to the film, the camera panning and tilting its way through the West Side with the alienation and isolation of the urban center remaining at the forefront of every frame. As the Jets sing “Krup You” to dear ole Sergeant Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James) while making mincemeat out of the police precinct, Spielberg revels in the seamless choreography, using the station’s dingy claustrophobia to imply that the film’s authorities are as crushed by their betters as the rabble they are charged with quelling. Spielberg spends West Side Story’s 156 minutes arguing for a reconciliation of Jet and Shark poised to take on an invisible elite profiting off their stagnation. As the contemporary left finds itself primed to learn that demographics may no longer equal destiny, only Spielberg is an honest enough filmmaker to realize that perhaps a sixty-year-old musical may not be the American cultural touchstone most in need of revision.
West Side Story is now playing in theatres.