In terms of performance, “West Side Story” make instant stars of at least three people: Mike Faist, Ariana DeBose, and Rachel Zegler. Of course, theatre fans don’t need an introduction to DeBose, a Tony nominee who was in the original production of Hamilton. As anyone who knows the original can tell you, DeBose gets the showstopper in “America,” and it is one of the cinematic highlights of the year. Spielberg and Kushner pull the number down from the rooftops, sending Anita and her friends through the streets, dancing and singing with such passion that you can sense it through the camera. Spielberg and Kaminski’s staging here is stunning, moving so gracefully around the performers in a way that’s never distracting but only designed to make sure you don’t miss a thing. The camerawork incorporates a little too much lens flare but it’s the framing and fluidity that make it exemplary.
Faist and Zegler also find that well of passion that Riff and Maria need. On the other hand, Elgort rarely feels like he’s on the same page. These characters need to be almost jittery with the adrenalin of youth—an uncontrollable feeling that leads them to dance, to love, to fight. Everyone gets that but Elgort. He’s a blank slate in the first half, brought slightly to life by the melodrama but never enough to stop the thoughts of what could have been with a performer who better understood Tony’s desperation. He’s caught between friendship and love, knowing that giving into either could send him back to jail or worse. Elgort never conveys those stakes.
Luckily, everything around him does. Faist finds a remarkable vulnerability in Riff; Zegler makes you believe that love has her feeling pretty; Alvarez nails the over-protective nature of men who go too far; DeBose has arguably the largest range from “America” to the end of Anita’s tragic arc. And then there’s Rita Moreno. When I realized a moment that she was about to have in terms of one of the original songs from the show, I gasped. She grounds the final act of the film in a way that it really needs.
There’s so much beauty in this “West Side Story.” It merges things that have truly shaped pop culture from the graceful precision of Spielberg—who has always had a musical director’s eye in terms of how he choreographs his scenes—to the masterful songwriting of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein to the brilliant writing of Tony Kushner to the immigrant experience in this country. It grabs you from the very beginning and takes you there. Somehow, someday, somewhere.
Now playing in theaters.
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