West Side Story started life as an American stage musical in 1957 and became even more popular after a film adaptation in 1961. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story explores ethnic differences that have split a working-class neighbourhood in New York City down the middle. A new version by Steven Spielberg pays homage to a timeless story of ethnic prejudice and young love and updates it.
The bitter rivalry between the Jets, a group of White teenagers, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican immigrants, results in nasty turf wars and rumbles, or heated dance contests. Tensions escalate when the Jets’ co-founder Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of the Sharks leader Bernando (David Alvarez).
Riff (Mike Faist), who heads the Jets, similarly sees Tony’s choice as an act of betrayal.
The 158-minute movie retains its 1950s setting and the foot-tapping music (by Leonard Bernstein) and lyrics (by Stephen Sondheim). The musical sequences mark the emotional highs and lows of a romance as tender as it is star-crossed. “Make of our hands one hand, make of our hearts one heart, make of our vows one last vow,” Tony and Maria sing with the abandon that only young lovers may know.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner throws into a deeply respectful adaptation references to contemporary urban realities, including tensions over immigration, unemployment and biased policing. The tenements that serve as both backdrop and staging ground for the territorial battles and dance sequences have been classified as slums. A sign that the tenements will soon make way for the construction of the Lincoln Center cultural complex points to the bigger danger for both the gangs: gentrification.
Early in the film, there is an acknowledgement of the rich legacy created by West Side Story, as Spielberg references an iconic pop music video that borrowed its imagery from the musical.
West Side Story follows a long tradition of musicals on film. These include Leos Carax’s Annette and Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In The Heights and Tick…Tick, Boom! this year alone. While Spielberg’s adaptation doesn’t have the dazzling imagination at work in Annette and is faithful to a fault to the source, there are ways in which we are reminded that we are watching a work of cinema rather than a filmed piece of theatre.
The bravura choreography by Justin Peck, which unfolds in sets and on actual locations, reaches its peak with America. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s fluid long takes create momentum and movement in the song sequences.
The diverse casting results in key roles for a host of Latinx actors, including Rita Moreno, who is lovely as Tony’s kindly benefactor. Moreno played Anita, Bernando’s girlfriend, in the 1961 movie. Her replacement, Ariana DeBose, is even more spirited and a gorgeous dancer and dominates every one of her scenes. DeBose and Mike Faist, who plays Riff, are among the scene-stealers, with enough energy and deeply felt emotion to compensate for the lacklustre and mismatched leads.
Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler can barely match the emotions expressed in their songs. The lovers at the heart of the plot never quite come together even as nearly everything else clacks into place.
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