When I first heard that Spielberg was taking on the classic musical, West Side Story, previously immortalized on celluloid by iconic director Robert Wise, I was a little dubious. Not that I didn’t trust Spielberg. Even with some of his weaker films (BFG) he arguably does something unique and noteworthy, even if it just demonstrates the technology (BFG).
But when I settled in for the film, and those classic Sondheim lyrics and Bernstein score wrapped me up, I was sold. Spielberg conducts a beautiful rendition of the beloved musical, Janusz Kaminski delivers some gorgeous images as the director of photography, and Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar serve as editors. He’s stocked the crew with a number of familiar names and faces, and they are there with one intent to let the characters, the music and the moments shine as the classic New York city updating of a Romeo & Juliet tale sweeps viewers up.
We are introduced to two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Constantly at war over territory and race, and two characters, Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) from opposite sides get swept up in events as they fall in love with one another, against everyone’s wishes.
It’s hard to measure up to some classic films, but Spielberg’s rendition of West Side Story can easily rival Wise’s and arguably is more accessible to its audience, not only with its representations but with Spielberg’s storytelling style, leaning into the emotional moments, and bringing his Spielberg magic to songs, scenes and beloved dialogue.
I’m not the only one that felt that way.
The film was nominated for seven Oscars. It took home Best Supporting Actress for Ariana DeBose (a beautiful performance) but it also got nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Costume, Best Sound and Best Production Design.
This is a film to point at when people say remakes don’t work. This one not only works, but it’s also beautifully stunning to behold.
I’m going to end up on some hate lists for this but Sondheim has never been one of my favourite lyricists. I can appreciate he was a master of his craft, but none of his musicals ever really resonated with me. But there is definitely magic in this film, Spielberg has captured it with his fantastic performers, including a returning Rita Moreno, and it is a stunning watch.
I like a good musical, and I love a brilliant musical. I loved West Side Story, and I owe Spielberg (and Wise) some thanks for making me re-examine how I feel about Sondheim.