Steven Spielberg’s new take on West Side Story soars, and proves to be well worth the wait – here’s our review.
It seems absurd that Steven Spielberg had never made a musical until West Side Story. Over the course of a 50-year career and more than 30 feature films, it might be the only box that the most famous filmmaker in cinema history had not ticked off. West Side Story ticks that box, and ticks it with aplomb – not to mention a tuneful click of the fingers.
The musical is a truly timeless one, first performed on Broadway in 1957 and adapted for the big screen with Oscar-winning success by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1961. Inspired by Romeo & Juliet, it tells the story of the romance between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), who are connected to the warring Jets and Sharks gangs in 1950s New York City. The white Jets despise the Puerto Rican Sharks – and the feeling is mutual – ensuring that the course of Tony and Maria’s love will run anything but smoothly.
Those who believe a remake must justify its existence might not chime with West Side Story. Aside from a rejigging of some of the songs and timelines, there’s little here that marks this out as a brand new version of either the film or the show. But Spielberg brings so much style and energy to proceedings that it’s a delight to experience the movie, and there’s every chance this could prove a gateway drug to the original film and musicals as a whole for an entire generation. As is the case with almost all remakes, the original is still fully in tact and widely available. Spielberg does nothing to hurt it.
With that out of the way, Spielberg looks like a man who has been directing musicals for his whole life, allowing the camera to linger on Justin Peck’s delightfully classical choreography. This is an old school musical, more concerned with ensuring the audience can see the singing and dancing than in whirling the camera around like a kid in a sweet shop. These characters might be frantically spinning out of control, but Spielberg’s direction is a masterclass in keeping things on a tight leash.
But that’s not at all to say that the film is visually uninteresting. The grey of the urban sprawl pops with fizzes of vibrant excitement, whether it’s primary-coloured dresses or the shiny floor of a school gym in which an ostentatious, extravagant dance provides an early flashpoint for gang tensions. Every splash of colour feels carefully chosen, as if it’s these young people who provide hope for the future amid the grey rubble of a neighbourhood being torn apart to make way for flashy but soulless modernity. The evocative location of the climactic rumble between the two gangs is lit in harsh, dramatic style as if to nod to the stage origins of the story – for these young men, violence is performance.
The script from frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner teases and pricks at the community tensions, but resists the urge to bog the movie down in nudge-wink references to more modern racial friction. It’s a film which knows its story is timeless in its original form and so opts not to rip it from its original context. It already speaks, and speaks loudly through the generations.
And this time around, it speaks with the voice of a new cast. Rachel Zegler proves an effervescent screen discovery as Maria, balancing her inherent charisma and bravura vocal skills with the necessary naivete of the role. In contrast, Ansel Elgort looks more than a little hopeless and miscast as Tony. He’s a solid actor and a solid enough singer, but he wanders through this movie like a lost puppy desperately in search of someone to tell him what to do. He’s neither believable as a street thug hoping to reform himself or as a lovesick teenager, meandering through the movie like a flickering lightclub in need of a replacement.
In contrast, Tony nominee Mike Faist oozes slimy charisma as Jets leader Riff, while David Alvarez is brash and hilarious as Sharks head honcho Bernardo and Rita Moreno – who of course played Anita in the previous film – pulls the heartstrings apart with her rendition of Somewhere. The true star of the show, though, is Hamilton original cast member Ariana DeBose as Anita. She’s a presence of pure star power, exploding from the screen as a smart, switched-on woman who is entirely too good for the petty gang beefs which seem to enthral those around her. Her fabric-swishing, street-strutting performance of all-time classic track America will live long in the memory.
West Side Story largely works as well as it does because it sticks a thumb in the eye of the received wisdom about remakes. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel or modernise, but nor is it a shot-for-shot retread of what has come before. In the great Broadway tradition, it’s almost like seeing the same show with a revamped cast. There are some new ideas and new flourishes, but it’s fundamentally the same, brilliant two hours of entertainment. And in this case, the bravura skill of one of the greatest filmmakers ever to get behind the camera gives everything an extra layer of exquisite gloss.
Apologies in advance for the dreadful pun, but this version of West Side Story? It just clicks.
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