West Side Story is not an old man's movie

Half a century in, Steven Spielberg is still just getting started

West Side Story.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Twentieth Century Fox, iStock)

About a week after West Side Story is released in theaters nationwide on Friday, Steven Spielberg will celebrate his 75th birthday. Though he shot the film when he was "only" 72, there's nothing about Spielberg's musical that creaks like an old man's movie — beyond, perhaps, its origin as a remake of a classic stage show (and 1961 film) from half a century earlier. His camera whips around both sets and locations with boundless energy; this is the rare movie musical that feels as athletic and energized as the performers in it. It's not just a spirited run-through of classic material, either: Spielberg's new version of West Side Story, with an adaptation by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, fine-tunes the material to more explicitly address racial tensions and gentrification without "updating" the text from its 1950s context.

West Side Story arrives just about 10 years after Spielberg's 2011 double feature, when he released The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse within days of each other. Technically, West Side Story kicks off a new decade; it's Spielberg's first film of the 2020s. At the risk of sounding morbid, this decade could also be his last; there aren't that many major directors who keep working well past 85.

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Jesse Hassenger

Jesse Hassenger's film and culture criticism has appeared in The Onion's A.V. Club, Brooklyn Magazine, and Men's Journal online, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, where he also writes fiction, edits textbooks, and helps run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast.