Review: West Side Story

Dona and I watched Spielberg's remake of West Side Story yesterday. I am kicking myself hard that I didn't see this in a cinema. It's completely flawless, a sparkling gem of a movie, and it's a big movie with big themes deserving of a big canvas.
This story has been worked and reworked over the course of four centuries by some tremendously expressive people: William Shakespeare, for starters, and also Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Robert Wise, and now Tony Kushner, Janusz Kamiński, Justin Peck, and Steven Spielberg. There are many layers on this palimpsest, many versions all reaching across time. Spielberg uses all of these contributions, remixes them, adds to them, awakens them.
The most obvious of these is Rita Moreno's marvelous turn from starring in the 1961 as Anita and returning in this film as both on-set executive producer and in a reworked role of Valentina. She brings dignity and resonance in every scene she's in, particularly in the scene where she prevents a gang rape of the character she had played sixty years ago.
The rest of the cast more than shines, of course, each and every one selected from the 30,000 or so who auditioned, each and every one perfect for the role. Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria, and now Oscar-winning Ariana DeBose as Anita are startlingly, thrilling good.
Spielberg did here what he's best at: assembling a team of exquisitely-talented people to make sure every second is cinematically thrilling. It certainly is that.

However, with all this money and all this technology, this doesn't come off as factory-made film. Every scene drips with ingenuity, yes, and there is a playful (and no doubt expensive) visual approach that makes the sets look both hyper-realistic and also theatrical/dreamy. This makes sense, of course, since this is a musical film powered by narrative dance. Spielberg leans into theatricality of the thing, and leans just as hard into the cinema of it: The camera is rarely still, firmly directing our gaze to the exact face, the exact gesture, the exact prop to heighten the mood and meaning. Light seems to erupt from everywhere all at once, somehow fooling us that it is naturalistic while also being unabashedly operatic.
The art and industry of film making hasn't been right for a long while now, and everything is topsy-turvy. With so much else in the world demanding our attention, it could be argued that perhaps we didn't need this film.
That's not a trivial argument, I suppose. Watching the film, however, was a revelation. This is an ancient story: This is the story of the anger and fear and desperation of young people tossed into an uncaring and senseless world as it has been arranged by the grown-ups, knowing nothing about life except that they love, and then seeing that love wrenched away from them. The razzle-dazzle is all there to help us feel the intensity of youth, the promise of love, and to know how thrilling and how fragile it all is.
The final action in the film, after cruel betrayal and murder and hate has crushed these life-loving children, is the lone elder who cared for them picking up a smoking gun from the street, weary and horrified, but resolute that she is going to care for those who survived, steadfast that life must find a way.
To me, that's why we needed this, and that's why I'm glad we have it.

– J.F. "Jeff" McCullers