We all remember the film that made us fall in love with going to the movies. For 11-year-old me, it was “Jaws.” That summer I purchased a ticket on 32 different occasions and thus began my romance with cinema.

For many, it was the Bernstein-Sondheim driven musical “West Side Story” by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. On the 60th anniversary of the Oscar-winning film, Steven Spielberg, who is obviously still fascinated by sharks, reminds us why we fell in love with movies. He has taken the Broadway-adapted classic and refined it in truly spectacular fashion. The choreography is thrilling, the visuals striking, and the cast first-rate. The forbidden love story never looked so good.

The film opens in 1957 amidst the concrete rubble of recently demolished tenements in New York’s Upper West Side. At first glance, it appears that we’ve stepped into “Saving Private Ryan” as skeletal remnants of buildings tower above the debris. But the large steel wrecking ball looming over the San Juan Hill slum is an ominous indication of the urban renewal taking place to make way for Lincoln Center, displacing families and forcing rival gangs The Jets, made up of Irish, Polish, and Italian teenagers, and The Sharks, their Puerto Rican counterparts, to face the fact that the turf they have been fighting over is quickly vanishing.

At a time when many filmmakers are turning to Black-and-White as a way to visually impact their films (Kenneth Branagh with “Belfast” and Mike Mills with “C’mon C’mon” are two recent examples), Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński remind us how dazzling color adds a third-dimension quality to a film, evident in the vibrant dance numbers choreographed by Justin Peck. Yellow and red skirts, blue shirts, a myriad of patterns and prints, jump off the screen as the dull and shadowy brownstones in the background provide a striking contrast.

Daniel L. Fapp took home the Oscar for his cinematography work on the 1961 classic. His camera was a keen observer always centered on the action at hand while Kamiński is much more versatile with his photography. The camera flows and swirls, zooms in and out, energizing the moment at hand. The long-time Spielberg collaborator (they first worked together on “Schindler’s List” in 1993) gives us the best lit film of the year. The outdoor scenes are vivid of course, but the dimly lit indoor and night scenes really stand out as Kamiński uses a fracture of light to perfectly illuminate an actor’s face as in the basement of a pharmacy or on a fire escape, or to provide a nice contrast as light bleeds through the gymnasium bleachers that our star-crossed lovers have taken refuge behind.

Author and playwright Tony Kushner, who received the Pulitzer Prize for “Angels in America” is tasked with updating the Shakespeare-inspired “West Side Story” and does so by giving the audience better perspectives of the iconic characters. Tony, played here by Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”), is more rounded. We get a better idea of his disposition. While Maria played by newcomer Rachel Zegler (who resembles a young Brooke Adams) retains the innocence of her character while pushing the boundaries. Here, Kushner makes her a bit more audacious, and it works.

In this updated version, Tony is fresh out of prison after serving a year for nearly killing a rival gang member. The ex-Jets cofounder has shied away from his violent past, living with regret for almost taking someone’s life. He’s working at Doc’s drugstore for widow Valentina (Rita Moreno), the only person willing to take him in after prison. Moreno (who turns 90 on Saturday) took home the Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film and it’s wonderful to see her in this new adaptation. Serving as the film’s Executive Producer, the Puerto Rican icon shines once again as she performs the ballad “Somewhere” in a departure from the original story where Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) sing the song to each other. Here, Valentina recalls a life with her late Anglo husband keeping within the song’s theme of racial equality.

The supporting cast is superb starting with Mike Faist as Jets leader Riff. The talented singer, dancer, and actor whose theater work includes “Newsies” and Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen” is a firecracker. He has this intensity that charges up a scene. He reminds me of David Caruso in the “NYPD Blues” days. Ariana DeBose gives us a spirited performance as Anita. She’s fantastic singing and dancing while leading the song “America.” David Alvarez as Sharks leader and boxer Bernardo is charismatic and just menacing enough to raise the tension. I also enjoyed the performances by Corey Stoll as tough guy Lieutenant Schrank and Brian d’Arcy James as Officer Krupke, whose proficiency at blowing a whistle is surpassed by his ability to convey his character’s frustration and patience when dealing with the rival gangs.

There is much to love about Spielberg’s “West Side Story” which serves to refine not redefine the 60-year-old classic film. It’s great to see Latinx actors in the Puerto Rican roles, Rita Moreno back for another dose of Bernstein and Sondheim, Elgort and Zegler’s memorable performances as the star-crossed lovers, and to hear those wonderful songs which have never sounded better. You can’t help but sing along.

“West Side Story” is a triumph and just as he’s done countless times before, Steven Spielberg reminds us why we love movies so much.

(4 stars)

Opens in theatres nationwide today

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

Leave a comment

Welcome to the discussion.

• Transparency. Your full name is required.

• Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.

• PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.

• Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.

• Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.

• Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.

• Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article -- and receive photos, videos of what you see.

• Don’t be a troll. Don’t be a troll.

• Don’t post inflammatory or off-topic messages, or personal attacks.