West Side Story

West Side Story

The primary point of view in West Side Story is that of a wrecking ball. The film begins there, high above the Irish/Puerto Rican borough already in the process of being demolished to make way for new, expensive high rises on New York’s west side. The film’s opening shot is like the inverse of below-the-water shots that begin Jaws. Death is coming, this time from above.

The camera doesn’t stay up there though. It soon moves down onto the few streets the Jets and the Sharks haunt as they war with each other. Spielberg’s West Side Story is intimate and involved, not “stagy” in the slightest. Robert Wise’s original film from 1961—a film Spielberg has long adored; references to it show up throughout his career—soars in its first twenty minutes or so that were filmed on location in a condemned New York City neighborhood but then falls off as it moves onto studio sets for the remainder of the film. This new film keeps to the streets most of the time, and is almost always better for it.

The only scene that works better in the original is “America.” The original is set on a rooftop, and it benefits from the contained pressure of the setting. Spielberg opens the scene up by moving it to the streets, and it loses some of its power. The original version is one of the great scenes in American musical history. It’s kind of impossible to clock up to it. Perhaps Spielberg and his team realized that.

Again, that’s the only scene that is better in the original film though. The rest of this new West Side Story is far better. 2021 has been a year of musicals, each one distinct from the others. West Side Story is classically done, in the spirit of a Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen film. The choreography is in turns athletic or sweepingly romantic, but it’s always dynamic with cinematography to match. This is West Side Story as it should be, with filmmaking that does justice to its music, lyrics, and ideas.

The film does better than making an old thing new. It shows us why the old thing is as prescient as ever. I wish we didn’t live in a world where we needed to have our consciences stoked to care for our neighbors, especially the immigrants among us, and to be made aware of the ways the machinery of “progress” lays waste to vibrant communities, but we do still live in that world. “America” may be the weakest number in this new adaptation of West Side Story, but it’s still the one that made me cry, because it’s still the song and sequence that gets right to the heart of what all this is about: can that which is ultimately good – love itself – survive in the face of the racism, classism, and impersonal Capitalism that swings like a wrecking ball through our lives? The real villain of West Side Story isn’t any of the kids, obviously. It’s Robert Moses—look him up—and all the nameless urban engineers who follow in his footsteps. They have no regard whatsoever for the people they displace. All that matters to them is progress.

Maria and Tony’s love affair (Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort, both terrific, thank God) is an emblem of what could be possible if the powers that be would get out of the way. It’s tragic, of course, we know that, but the glory of West Side Story is that it makes you feel the tragedy. You want their love to flourish, to last for more than just tonight. You know it can’t, because the wrecking ball hangs over everything.

The primary point of view in West Side Story is that of a wrecking ball. The film begins there, high above the Irish/Puerto Rican borough already in the process of being demolished to make way for new, expensive high rises on New York’s west side. The film’s opening shot is like the inverse of below-the-water shots that begin Jaws. Death is coming, this time from above.

The camera doesn’t stay up there though. It soon moves down onto the few streets the Jets and the Sharks haunt as they war with each other. Spielberg’s West Side Story is intimate and involved, not “stagy” in the slightest. Robert Wise’s original film from 1961—a film Spielberg has long adored; references to it show up throughout his career—soars in its first twenty minutes or so that were filmed on location in a condemned New York City neighborhood but then falls off as it moves onto studio sets for the remainder of the film. This new film keeps to the streets most of the time, and is almost always better for it.

The only scene that works better in the original is “America.” The original is set on a rooftop, and it benefits from the contained pressure of the setting. Spielberg opens the scene up by moving it to the streets, and it loses some of its power. The original version is one of the great scenes in American musical history. It’s kind of impossible to clock up to it. Perhaps Spielberg and his team realized that.

Again, that’s the only scene that is better in the original film though. The rest of this new West Side Story is far better. 2021 has been a year of musicals, each one distinct from the others. West Side Story is classically done, in the spirit of a Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen film. The choreography is in turns athletic or sweepingly romantic, but it’s always dynamic with cinematography to match. This is West Side Story as it should be, with filmmaking that does justice to its music, lyrics, and ideas.

The film does better than making an old thing new. It shows us why the old thing is as prescient as ever. I wish we didn’t live in a world where we needed to have our consciences stoked to care for our neighbors, especially the immigrants among us, and to be made aware of the ways the machinery of “progress” lays waste to vibrant communities, but we do still live in that world. “America” may be the weakest number in this new adaptation of West Side Story, but it’s still the one that made me cry, because it’s still the song and sequence that gets right to the heart of what all this is about: can that which is ultimately good – love itself – survive in the face of the racism, classism, and impersonal Capitalism that swings like a wrecking ball through our lives? The real villain of West Side Story isn’t any of the kids, obviously. It’s Robert Moses—look him up—and all the nameless urban engineers who follow in his footsteps. They have no regard whatsoever for the people they displace. All that matters to them is progress.

Maria and Tony’s love affair (Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort, both terrific, thank God) is an emblem of what could be possible if the powers that be would get out of the way. It’s tragic, of course, we know that, but the glory of West Side Story is that it makes you feel the tragedy. You want their love to flourish, to last for more than just tonight. You know it can’t, because the wrecking ball hangs over everything.

Portrait of Fuller Seminary alum Elijah Davidson

Elijah Davidson is Co-Director of Brehm Film and Senior Film Critic. Find more of his work at elijahdavidson.com.

Most acting is so good we don’t notice it. We accept the characters as real and forget they are being performed by actors making choices. House of Gucci doesn’t let us do that.