Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Mike Faist
Written by: Tony Kushner, (based on the Broadway musical) (book) Arthur Laurents, (music) Leonard Bernstein, (lyrics) Stephen Sondheim
Running Time: 156 mins
Release date: 10th December 2021
The 1961 screen version of the Broadway musical, West Side Story, is regarded by many to be the best musical ever. It would take a fearless man to try and reimagine such an influential and highly respected tale. Yet here we are some 60 years later, and we have a new version of the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim show. The man taking on the task is a little known filmmaker named Steven Spielberg. You tend to breathe a sigh of relief once you have a name like that against a title like this because he is such a skilled director; it should be in safe hands. So I have to say that all is well on the West Side. Very, very well!
A small section of New York is being bulldozered to make way for brand new apartments. In this area, an ever-growing Puerto Rican community are outnumbering the “white” people to the hatred of the Jets, a gang with a grudge against the Sharks, a band led by boxer Bernardo. Tensions between the two units rise when former Jet leader, Tony, meets and falls for Bernardo’s sister, Maria.
This is Spielberg’s first full-length musical and a passion project for years. After the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with his wife, Kate Capshaw, performed a lavish version of “Anything Goes”, Spielberg has been waiting to helm a big-screen musical with West Side Story being his one love. He and writer Tony Kushner have managed the almost impossible: making a musical from the 50s incredibly relevant today.
Smartly keeping the setting in the 50s, Spielberg’s version uses the social-political backdrop to be more critical. The destructions of homes and the rise of immigrants in the area are the reason for the rivalry. They fear their home is no longer theirs, and territory protection is vital. This isn’t a land where everyone lives together in harmony, but a strong dividing line has been drawn. Even the local police Lieutenant can see what is happening and sides with the Jets. Then the walls come crashing down when Tony, on parole for a previous crime, attends a local dance at the request of Jet leader, Riff, and falls immediately for Maria, the sister of Bernardo.
Taking the basis of the story from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Spielberg and Kushner keep the backbone of the original musical but add in comments about the current state of race relations, attitude to gender neutrality, and the local community’s demise. Yet, at its heart is a love story of two people from different backgrounds and the effect their love has on those around them.
What Spielberg has created is close to masterful as he confidently shoots the film with the ease of a great artist at work. Using every inch of the screen and filling it with eye-popping wonder, the vast set pieces are breath-taking while still managing the smaller, more intimate moments with the same level of detail. The dance where Tony and Maria’s first meet is magical. Shot in a way that the pair seems like the only people in the room, even though it’s vibrant and busy, it shows how confident Spielberg is with a camera.
The film really exceeds during the vast musical numbers. Using whole communities, the actors and dancers merge with the locals going about their everyday routines as if dancing in the streets was a natural as walking. The highlight is America, which is so energetic and magical, you feel you want to give it a standing ovation. Yet scenes like Tony’s opus to his new love, Maria, is directed with imagination and flair. While never using the kind of colourful trappings seen in the recent In The Heights, a simple overhead shot of Tony in a puddle is somehow incredible.
This is far from an upbeat musical, and Spielberg hasn’t dampened the final act, which is as bleak and dark as before. He has also upped the violence in the fights between the two rival gangs, and Kushner has introduced language not heard in the original. Spielberg has also refused to add subtitles to the conversations of the Puerto Ricans, and it never seems to matter at all.
Leonard Bernstein’s incredible score and the late Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are at the centre. Even though written 60 years ago, they don’t seem dated. The orchestration sounds fantastic and if you decide to see this in the cinema (where it certainly belongs), then see it with the best sound and most giant screen possible.
The film is littered with great performances. Stand-outs include Mike Feist as Riff, a man troubled by the world around him but refusing to give up on his gang and his own community. Original; cast member Rita Moreno is terrific as Valentina, a new character who runs the drug store and is a confidant to Tony. She brings a level of gravitas to the role, and her performance of Somewhere is heartbreaking. As Anita, Ariana DeBose is magnificent. She is the centre of the America number with plenty of sassiness and is breath-taking.
As the star-crossed lovers, Ansel Elgort, best known for Baby Driver, and newcomer, Rachel Zegler, are extremely good, with both tackling the singing with aplomb. Zegler, especially, brings warmth and wonderment to this innocent young girl caught up in a war because she fell in love with the wrong man. So I can see a very bright future for this young actress.
West Side Story is a triumph. A film that never feels out-of-place in the modern world, directed by a man who is a master of his craft and delivering his best film in years. It reminded me of Spielberg’s blockbuster days of the 70s and 80s. Anyone thinking of directing a musical needs to use this as a template for doing it. Is it as good as Robert Wise’s original? Not as good, more an equal!.
5 out of 5