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film review

Ariana DeBose as Anita in West Side Story. The musical numbers, underpinning the film are superb.Photo by Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

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  • West Side Story
  • Directed by Steven Spielberg
  • Written by Tony Kushner, based on the stage play book by Arthur Laurents
  • Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler and Rita Moreno
  • Classification PG; 157 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Dec. 10

Critic’s pick

Steven Spielberg loves movies. Not in the way that you or even I, a paid movie-writing professional, loves movies. He loves movies like they are the first, last and only good things on this green Earth. Movies give him life, purpose, complete and utter totality. And over the course of his remarkable career – one that has shaped the American dream factory, and with it the actual dreams of Americans – Steven Spielberg has been gracious enough to share that love with us.

So: If anyone has doubted the filmmaker’s commitment to the form over the past few years – maybe it was the pat politics of The Post or the intellectual-property migraine of Ready Player One – then West Side Story arrives to confirm that actually, no, any Spielberg skeptics or cynics or sometime-doubters (guilty) have it all wrong. Here is a glorious and genuine movie-movie: A vivid, sweeping, beautiful piece of top-tier pop-art. You will leave the theatre swooning, in love with the biggest kind of big picture.

But first: It takes more than a little bit of mental ballet to declare West Side Story 2.0 an absolutely essential thing. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 adaptation of the Broadway sensation still hits all the pleasure centres, always has. Why remake it, why even try? Spielberg’s answer: Well, it’s not really a remake at all. Instead, this is pitched as a “reimagining” of the original 1957 Broadway work conceived by choreographer Robbins, musician Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents. I’m not sure this argument quite tracks – almost any viewer’s mind will go straight to a film-to-film comparison, even though the song arrangement here reverts back to the stage version – but I’ll allow it.

After all, the original musical was really just a remake – sorry reimagining – of Romeo and Juliet. And it is not as if Spielberg and Co. can be accused of easy-money grave-robbing, either, by angling away from Wise’s work – more than half a century later, West Side Story doesn’t have the intellectual-property recognizability that Hollywood presumes contemporary audiences desire or require. There is no Sondheim Cinematic Universe being promised here. Only a big, wet, gushy smack of movies-now-more-than-ever energy.

I would accuse Spielberg of playing the romantic fool – of being convinced that his audience will fall in love with whatever he’s already become smitten with or blinded by himself – but West Side Story proves that he is as annoyingly, lovingly, dastardly whip-smart as ever. This film is the reason that we go out to the movies – as in, physically trudge our butts to a seat in a room full of strangers – and should continue to do so for as long as the opportunity is afforded to us.

Anyway: Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who also wrote the director’s best 21st-century films, Lincoln and Munich) are both well aware of the challenges that they’ve set up for themselves, and write culture’s collective hand-wringing into the very first minutes of their West Side Story: A majestic, swooping shot that documents the 1950s destruction of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill’s tenement buildings, demolished to pave way for “master builder” Robert Moses’s sparkling vision of New York’s future.

Rachel Zegler as Maria in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.Photo by Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

Spielberg’s West Side Story takes place in a world in which the past surrounds the present in jagged, unavoidable, foreboding heaps. It is a suggestion – more than that, really – from the filmmakers that it is better to face history straight in the face than pretend that it doesn’t exist. West Side Story is that rare remake/reboot/reimagining/re-whatever that builds, even strengthens, the original property’s legacy instead of trying to furiously, futilely ignore it.

Besides, everything you want out of an old or new West Side Story is here. There are the beautiful young lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), torn between their passions for each other and their ethnic loyalties. There are the Jets, stay-cool white-boy toughs led by the born-angry Riff (Mike Faist). And there are the Sharks, Puerto Rican bruisers headed by the charming hothead Bernardo (David Alvarez). Both gangs are fighting over quickly gentrifying turf, with those mountains of rubble littering New York serving dual purposes for Spielberg and Kushner: There is upheaval, both artistic and societal, to be found in the approaching glimmer of a wrecking ball.

Each character gets a moment to shine, but there are welcome and surprising expansions, too. We get to know Anita (Ariana DeBose) as more than just the snap to Bernardo’s crackle, while the tomboy Jets wannabe Anybodys (Iris Menas) is given a less coded sexuality. The boldest alteration? Perhaps replacing the kindly Jewish pharmacist Doc, who acts a sort of go-between for the Jets and Sharks, with his Puerto Rican widow Valentina (played by Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing the original Anita and whose presence here underlines the legitimacy of the affair, even though no such endorsement is ultimately necessary).

Actually, I take that back: Spielberg and Kushner’s most invigorating update is related, but twofold: They actually cast Latinx performers for the Sharks (Wise and Roberts’ film is awash in “brown-face”), and they forgo subtitles whenever those characters speak Spanish, which accounts for roughly 40 per cent of the total onscreen dialogue. That latter move is not as big a swing as it might have been were it attempted even a decade ago – and there’s a running joke of Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) imploring Maria and Anita to “speak English!” – but it’s still admirable as hell. Crucially, it works on a storytelling level. Even if you don’t know a word of Spanish, you understand what is being said in the moment.

The musical numbers, underpinning everything, are superb. Tony Award winning choreographer Justin Peck updates and refashions Robbins’ work with glee and grace, and the cast of pretty young things move like their lives (or careers) depend on it. And unlike a dispiriting number of recent musicals (remember Ryan Murphy’s Prom?), Spielberg, his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar are careful to capture the entirety of their performers’ bodies in motion, not cut off at the torso or lost in the shuffle of manic cutting.

In certain critical circles, there is already deep consternation over Elgort’s performance – Moreno aside, he’s the only real “name” in the cast – but honestly he’s fine, even genuinely soulful, as the unmoored Tony. Maybe it’s only that his work feels a little muted when stacked next to his co-stars, including the magnetic Zegler, the wonderfully twitchy Faist and the commanding DeBose. If there has to be one breakout, though, it is the Montreal-born Broadway actor Alvarez, whose Bernardo is so fired up that you can glimpse the flames in the actor’s eyes.

You might find that same fire after watching Spielberg’s West Side Story, too. It will light something in you, whether it is completely new or newly discovered.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.