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'West Side Story' on Disney Plus and HBO Max: Spielberg's Riotous Reinvention

Review: Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort play star-crossed lovers in this Oscar-nominated update of the classical musical.

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OK by me in America!
Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

Pretend, just for a second, that you've never seen West Side Story. A whole new generation is likely to discover this timeless romance in the form of Steven Spielberg's riotously colorful new movie version, and happily it's likely to inspire new fans with a dynamic, exhilarating slice of cinema. But boy is that second half going to be a shock.    

For those who love the classic show and its bold, brassy tunes, a big part of the enjoyment (or not) of any new version is comparing it with the changing nuances of previous versions, from the 1957 Broadway show to the 1961 movie musical to your high school's wobbily warbled performance. 

But even if you ignore any previous knowledge -- I admit I'm hazy about whether I've ever actually seen it all the way through -- this new retelling more than stands on its own two feet (with seven Oscar nominations to prove it). Streaming on Disney Plus and HBO Max now, this West Side Story is an utter visual delight, filled with eye-popping color, heart-pounding movement and compelling characters whirling and flashing across a richly drawn city.

It's New York in the 1950s and the Jets and the Sharks are rival gangs building up to a winner-takes-all battle. Self-destructive Jet leader Riff wants to recruit his old pal Tony for a big rumble with the Jets, but all Tony wants to do is make eyes at Maria, the beautiful sister of Shark leader Bernardo. 

She's Puerto Rican, he's an all-American juvenile delinquent, and neither of their extended families is happy to see them together. Dancing and singing ensue on fire escapes and subways, but violent delights have violent ends when the story is inspired by William Shakespeare's lovelorn tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who earns one of the film's Oscar noms) pull out the visual stops in the first half of the film, with flowing camera movement and thrilling production design providing a vast and textured playground for each showstopping song or dance number. Songs like America explode off the screen, and even the most intimate of conversations is picked out in lavish primary colors. It's joyous, sincere and intoxicating stuff, especially in these darkest of times.

The film features a star-making performance from luminous Rachel Zegler as lovelorn Maria, backed up by a scene-stealing turn from Hamilton star Ariana DeBose (both won Golden Globes, and DeBose is up for an Academy Award). Also lighting up the screen is Rita Moreno, one of the few actual Puerto Ricans in the original Broadway show and the 1961 film. Playing immigrants building a new life in New York with ambition and panache, this version's Puerto Rican characters often converse in Spanish. Even without subtitles, the crucial sentiments are unmistakable.

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Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

Of course, the ending is kind of a downer. I know, I know, Romeo and Juliet and all that. But the contrast between the thrilling first half and the bleak second half is so stark. The second act here is leached of music and movement, fitting with the emotional devastation. The first half is hope, the second half loss. Life, then death.

As the story deflates, scenes get repetitive as characters visit each other, on what increasingly look like movie sets, to cry a bit. The loss and heartbreak are keenly felt, but the longer it goes on the more it veers toward melodrama.

I'm not suggesting anyone bodge a happy ending onto a classic. But Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner expand and add larger themes of gentrification or identity that the finale has no space for. You can't open a film with a literal shot of a wrecking ball and then end it without seeing where everything falls. 

Ultimately, the central pairing of Tony and Maria needs to burn with intensity to sustain the whole thing. It's been said before, but those kids really do fall fast. This version leans on backstory for the pair that might suggest the two see in each other the solution to a bigger yearning, for escape or redemption. But their actual meet-cute, the fulcrum to this whole story, is remarkably slight. The slapstick gymnastics of this film's rendering of Gee Officer Krupke seem to go on forever, but the moment the star-crossed lovers actually cross stars zooms past all too quickly. Not to sound like some un-romantic old curmudgeon, but a bit of staring, a quick flutter of dance and suddenly they're in eternal love?

No amount of fancy lighting disguises that the couple never talk about anything except whether they're going to see each other again, meaning that their love must be built entirely on personal chemistry. Ansel Elgort is handsome enough, but opts to play Tony as a laid-back crooner rather than the tortured lover and fighter the script insists he is. Elgort ambles around the margins of the story rather than driving it with a tension over whether he really has changed, or whether anybody really can. He's especially bland next to sinewy Mike Faist as Riff or muscular David Alvarez as Bernardo and isn't the anchor the film needs as it deflates in the second half. That leaves Zegler with a lot of heavy lifting, and while she's more than up to the task there are long gaps when Maria simply isn't on screen.

It would also be easier to root for these two young lovers if he wasn't so obviously older than her (Elgort is 27, Zegler 20). Tony is pretty pushy with Maria, often talking over or belittling her actually very clear-eyed concerns. Even though Tony is meant to be obsessed with Maria, Elgort's casualness means you don't have to squint too hard to wonder whether he's just a shrewd talker who knows exactly what to say when he spots a doe-eyed ingenue craving romance. 

Despite the stark shift from sumptuous, life-affirming dance numbers to numb tragedy, this 2021 version of a classic story is still bracing and life-affirming jolt of pure cinema, conjuring breathtaking cinematic spectacle from the most intimate human emotions. Its delights are more than a match for even the violent end.