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West Side Story

The 1950s-set spin on 'Romeo and Juliet' returns to the screen — and, making his first-ever musical, Steven Spielberg turns it into a spectacular cinematic achievement.
By Sarah Ward
December 17, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 17, 2021
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Tonight, tonight, there's only Steven Spielberg's lavish and dynamic version of West Side Story tonight — not to detract from or forget the 1961 movie of the same name. Six decades ago, an all-singing, all-dancing, New York City-set, gang war-focused spin on Romeo and Juliet leapt from stage to screen, becoming one of cinema's all-time classic musicals; however, remaking that hit is a task that Spielberg dazzlingly proves up to. It's his first sashay into the genre, despite making his initial amateur feature just three years after the original West Side Story debuted. It's also his first film since 2018's obnoxiously awful Ready Player One, which doubled as a how-to guide to crafting one of the worst, flimsiest and most bloated pieces of soulless pop-culture worship possible. But with this swooning, socially aware story of star-crossed lovers, Spielberg pirouettes back from his atrocious last flick by embracing something he clearly adores, and being unafraid to give it rhythmic swirls and thematic twirls. 

Shakespeare's own tale of tempestuous romance still looms large over West Side Story, as it always has — in fair NYC and its rubble-strewn titular neighbourhood where it lays its 1950s-era scene. The Jets and the Sharks aren't quite two households both alike in dignity, though. Led by the swaggering and dogged Riff (Mike Faist, a Tony-nominee for the Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen), the Jets are young, scrappy, angry and full of resentment for anyone they fear is encroaching on their terrain (anyone who isn't white especially). Meanwhile, with boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez, a Tony-winner for Billy Elliot) at the helm, the Sharks have tried to establish new lives outside of their native Puerto Rico through study, jobs and their own businesses. 

Both gangs refuse to coexist peacefully in the only part of New York where either feels at home — even with the threat of gentrification looming large in every torn-down building, signs for shiny new amenities such as Lincoln Centre popping up around the place and, when either local cops Officer Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James, Hawkeye) or Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll, The Many Saints of Newark) interrupt their feuding, after they're overtly warned as well. But it's a night at a dance, and the love-at-first-sight connection that blooms between Riff's best friend Tony (Ansel Elgort, The Goldfinch) and Bernardo's younger sister María (feature debutant Rachel Zegler), that sparks a showdown. This rumble will decide westside supremacy once and for all, the two sides agree.

The OG West Side Story was many things: gifted with a glorious cast, including Rita Moreno in her Academy Award-winning role as Bernardo's girlfriend Anita, plus future Twin Peaks co-stars Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer as Riff and Tony; unashamedly showy, like it had just snapped its fingers and flung itself off the stage; and punchy with its editing, embracing the move from the boards to the frame. It still often resembled a filmed musical rather than a film more than it should've, however. Spielberg's reimagining, which boasts a script by his Munich and Lincoln scribe Tony Kushner, tweaks plenty while also always remaining West Side Story — and, via his regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (The Post) and a whirl of leaping and plunging camerawork, it looks as exuberant as the vibrant choreography that the New York City Ballet's Justin Peck splashes across the screen, nodding to Jerome Robbins' work for the original movie lovingly but never slavishly.

From the famous first whistle that's always opened the tale, West Side Story feels like it's dancing through the narrative instead of merely telling it. The savvy realisation that gang struts and brawls suit balletic movements — a notion from when the idea first hit the stage — pairs marvellously with the peppier visuals, too. Spielberg's fluid and kinetic stylistic approach springs from the same source as many of his other touches, with the director aiming not just to finally make a musical, bring the playfulness of his action scenes to the genre, or to give a work he loves his own stamp, but to ground the story in notions that are pressingly relevant today. Viewers here see more of the west side, get a bigger sense of the place, tap into its energy, and glean a more grounded view of the poverty, racism, factionalism and violence that's always sat at West Side Story's core.

Switching some of the film's Leonard Bernstein-composed, Stephen Sondheim-penned songs between characters and locations makes this a more thoughtful and textured movie as well. See: the on-the-street version of earworm 'America' led by Hamilton veteran Ariana DeBose as the new Anita, and transforming 'Somewhere' into a community-focused ballad sung by the returning Moreno as a new figure. Both are magnificent. Still, as delightful as almost everything about Spielberg's film is — its inspired changes and passionate tribute to the first feature alike — it has an Ansel Elgort problem. He's a bland island in a sea of spectacle, and the lack of chemistry between him and the radiant Zegler would be a killer if examining the place, time and struggles that give rise to Tony and María's love didn't take precedence over the romance itself.

Make it a 1950s NYC R+J, but about why its tragedy unfolds: that's another of Spielberg and Kushner's clever choices. And, while it takes a lifetime of unfortunate moves to strand the Jets and Sharks in their bloody turf war, thankfully one bad casting decision can't taint everything that glimmers about their latest big-screen outing. Indeed, enough praise can't be slung Faist, Zegler, Alvarez or DeBose's way, in what deserves to be a movie star-making effort for all four. Faist's turn as Riff is sinewy, smooth and vulnerable all at once — the film is electric every time he's on-screen — and Zegler's woozy and hopeful performance as a woman in the throes of first love is equally revelatory. Bringing EGOT-recipient and all-round entertainment icon Moreno back is touching, as well as exactly the right kind of nostalgic; looking both backwards and forwards is another of this sublime achievement of a feature's many successes, after all.

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