West Side Story (2021)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Tony Kushner
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll
It was one heck of a challenge to attempt to match Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical West Side Story. If there was one director up to the task it was filmmaking heavyweight for our times Steven Spielberg, and he’s managed to bring all his usual grand sweep and attention to detail to bear in this, a film that is undeniably his vision of this iconic Broadway show.
In 1957 a gang war rages between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks in the Upper West Side of New York City. Amidst increasingly violent fighting for rapidly shrinking territory as the neighbourhood is torn down for new urban development, former Jet member Tony (Ansel Elgort) and the sister of the Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), Maria (Rachel Zegler), fall head-over-heels in love with each other.
West Side Story is famously a riff on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, the story of forbidden love between warring houses. It is made relevant for the modern age by rooting it in a specific time, place and culture, and makes for one of the darkest and most violent song and dance shows out there.
Spielberg may have delivered his particular take on most film genres over his storied 50 year career, but this is his first proper musical; the closest he’d previously come to doing one was probably the dance number in the opening scene from Temple of Doom. Not that his talent or versatility was ever in doubt, but Spielberg is able to draw from some very strong material to begin with. Bernstein’s orchestration is always going to send your heart soaring and set your feet tapping, Sondheim’s lyrics will always wow with their dexterity and cleverness. Match the right voices to belt out the tunes and you’re on to a real winner straight out the gate.
Rachel Zegler is a real find, and delivers an attention-grabbing and layered performance in her film debut as Maria. Ansel Elgort seems to take a little more time to find his feet as Tony, but certainly grows into the role from the magical moment when the central pair first meet. The standouts in the vibrant ensemble are undoubtedly Ariana DeBose as Maria’s formidable friend Anita, Mike Faist’s emotionally raw Jets leader Riff and the original film’s Anita, Rita Moreno, in a very poignant and surprisingly meaty new role surely destined for awards recognition.
The most striking image in a film full of striking images (courtesy of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan DP Janusz Kamiński) is undoubtedly the two gangs approaching each other for their prior-agreed rumble for territorial control in the city salt storage warehouse, shot from above so the exaggerated shadows both groups cast look like two German Expressionist hands reaching out to meet each other.
The brawl that follows this stylish lead-in bears no relation to the dance-fighting in the same sequence in the original film. This is down and dirty, nasty gang violence between teenagers prepared to maim or kill each other out of ignorance and anger, justified or not.
There is a definite aesthetic shift after the muted colours of the film’s prologue introducing the gangs and the idea that their turf will soon be no more once the area is gentrified and the Lincoln Centre (ironically, a performing arts venue) is completed. The transition is signposted most notably by the dance hall sequence where the Jets and their partners are dressed in shades of blue and their Shark counterparts are in oranges and reds, their competitive dancing coming together in the centre of the hall, giving the appearance of water dousing fire. From here, the visuals become more theatrical and full of metaphorical imagery – people considering themselves and their future in reflective surfaces and water, literal barriers between lovers touching, draped fabric in symbolic colours.
The best sequence in the film (no change from the 1961 version) is the American Dream-mocking, prejudice-skewering extravaganza “America”. Switched up from taking place on a rooftop to the busy streets of the San Juan Hill neighbourhood, “America” is not the only number that has been smartly re-staged by Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and their collaborators. The scathing but comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” is now performed in lockup, the uplifting “I Feel Pretty” is restored to the pallet-cleansing position it occupied in the stage show and now takes place in a department store being cleaned at night, and Rita Moreno is bequeathed the tear-jerker “Somewhere” to hugely moving affect when paired with her character Valentina’s revealed backstory.
The original film was quite rightly criticised for casting non-Latino actors in the Sharks roles, caking everyone (including the few Latino performers like Rita Moreno) with brown makeup to better fit ethnic stereotypes. Everyone is appropriately cast here and the Puerto Rican characters naturalistically flit between speaking English and Spanish in domestic settings, the Spanish mostly left untranslated but the meaning always clear from context.
One aspect of the story really emphasised in this new version is that this is a conflict between kids from a place but with nowhere to go versus kids adjusting to a new home with their families at their back. The Jets appear to live their lives on the streets with no other concerns, whereas the Puerto Ricans, particularly the women, all hold down employment to pay their way in their new country. One group is trying to get on with their lives and look to the future, the other is stuck in the past and can’t see far enough to blame anyone but the newcomers for the sad state they find themselves in.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story wows, updating the more tired tropes and adding grit (and dramatic heft) without losing any of the musical’s energy or heady romance. Those particularly attached to the choreography, the staging or the performances of the original might find themselves predisposed to compare the two films and the different choices that were made, but if you go in with an open mind and allow yourself to get lost in the sheer majesty of the thing you’ll leave shiny-eyed and with many wonderful tunes going around your head for days.