West Side Story

By Joanna Langfield

From the way he teases us with the first whistles of the overture, we know Steven Spielberg is in full control, telling us a story many of us know, his way. And, for the most part, his way is pretty damn swell.

Alongside a marvelous group of collaborators, choreographer Justin Kirk and playwright Tony Kushner among them, Spielberg remains faithful to the classic so many of us hold dear. But he makes some fascinating changes, particularly in the screenplay. There’s a much stronger emphasis on gentrification and its impacts, not just on the area of New York City that has become Lincoln Center, but on the people, traditions, and problems it affected. Some characters get more time, some, like the police officers, a bit less. A few lines of dialogue are left unsubtitled, a move that’s as respectful as it is appropriate. And a seismic shift involving Rita Moreno isn’t just brilliant, it left me astonished and in tears.

And, honestly, isn’t that, the emotional entertainment, what matters to most people? A socially aware reimagining without the fun stuff, the music, the dancing, the look and the actors, could have been a schooling. This is not. You will be so swept up in the lush production you might not even realize the conscience at work here until hours later. Whenever, I hope you do think about it. And, clearly, so do the filmmakers.

But also enjoy the great talents you’ll see singing and dancing their hearts out for you. Newcomer Rachel Zegler is a wonderful discovery, slipping into Maria with confidence and a great voice. Ariana Debose is terrific in Moreno’s former role of Anita and I loved Mike Faist, who just about steals the picture as Riff. I wish Ansel Elgort, an actor who has shown far more charm and appeal in several other movies, had done so as Tony. I know that’s never been a role that swept everybody off their feet, but, as long as Spielberg was rebooting, couldn’t he have worked his magic here, too?