Director – Steven Spielberg – 2021 – US – Cert. 12a – 156m
This reimagining of the landmark 1961 musical feels fresh and completely different, yet strangely familiar at the same time – out in cinemas on Friday, December 10th
The original adaptation of Broadway show West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961) is widely reckoned one of the great movie musicals. It’s basically Romeo And Juliet reworked with rival houses replaced by rival ethnic gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. From the moment a former member of one gang falls for a young girl from the other ethnic group, their romance is doomed.
As well as remarkable songs (music: Leonard Bernstein, lyrics: Stephen Sondheim), the thing people remember is the incredible, almost otherworldly choreography. If this had not been a musical but a straightforward teenage youth drama, the gangs would have walked or run through the streets in packs. Here, though, they dance and glide as a synchronised group, and the never less than magical result proves highly effective.
So if you’re going to remake West Side Story, you’d better have some pretty good ideas because a carbon copy would be pointless. Enter Steven Spielberg. Like many people, he’s grown up with the 1961 movie and knows it intimately. What he wisely hasn’t tried to do is copy it.
From the lengthy opening shot where the camera traverses an area of New York City that’s been demolished for redevelopment, it’s clear that Spielberg’s interest lies in completely restaging the original. The songs are familiar, yet they feel fresh and original, as if you’re experiencing them for the first time.
Great care has been taken in the casting of the film so that the Sharks and their ethnic group are all played by Latinx who frequently burst into Spanish, lending a verisimilitude to the proceedings absent from the 1961 film. As the film proceeds towards a tragic shooting, you can’t help but feel that this is the same Spielberg that reworked E.T. (1981) to digitally remove the guns from the cops in the finale. If anything, the anti-gun message is even stronger here.
Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, Edgar Wright, 2017) is perfect as Tony, the Caucasian boy who falls for the girl from Puerto Rico. Newcomer Rachel Zegler is frankly astonishing as Maria; never, for a second, do you wish for the original cast members. Even so, you get one of the original cast in the form of Rita Moreno who plays Valentina, Tony’s boss at the shop where he works (who was a man in the earlier film) and she, too, is amazing here. Anita, the role Moreno played in the earlier film, is played by the wonderfully firey Ariana DeBose. She is both Maria’s confidante and the girlfriend of the Shark’s leader Bernardo (the charismatic David Alvarez). Mike Faist lends just enough weight to Riff, the Jets’ leader, to make the role work and provide the right degree of balance between the two rival sides.
As with the original film, certain songs and their staging are particularly outstanding. ‘Tonight’, the balcony (fire escape) scene between the two leads is one of these, as is ‘Somewhere’, here sung not by the leading young actress but by the ageing Rita Moreno, expressing a hope for a world no longer riven by interracial tension.
In short, Spielberg has set himself a near-impossible task in remaking West Side Story for a 21st Century audience. Yet, somehow, he and his many collaborators have pulled it off. The result is at once recognisable as the same property as the original film, yet, its reimagining makes it feel completely new. A real treat.
West Side Story is nominated for Best Picture in the 2021/22 (94th) Oscars as well as Best Supporting Actress (Ariana DeBose), Best Director (Steven Spielberg), Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Production Design.
West Side Story is out in UK cinemas on Friday, December 10th.