CAST: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Josh Andrés Rivera, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Curtiss Cook, Jamie Harris, Ana Isabelle, Kevin Csolak, Ezra Menas, Ben Cook, Sean Harrison Jones, Patrick Higgins, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Maddie Ziegler, Julius Anthony Rubio, Ricardo Zayas, Sebastian Serra, Carlos Sánchez Falú
RUNNING TIME: 156 mins
BASICALLY…: As tensions between the Jets and Sharks gangs boil over, two people from each side fall in love…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Of all the musicals to ever exist, West Side Story holds the most special place in my heart. Beyond the excellent music by Leonard Bernstein, the iconic lyrics by the recently-passed Stephen Sondheim, or even the timeless characters and the Romeo & Juliet-inspired story they operate within, it is simply just a joyous and emotionally rich thing to be engaged with. Case in point, I was part of the cast for my school’s big Christmas production of West Side Story over ten years ago, and the sense of community and comradery we all shared was due to our combined love and passion for this material, which for our age group of 12-18 was pretty perfect considering the youthful perspective of the show.
So, I am already very familiar with West Side Story before going to see this latest version, which comes fifty years after the classic Oscar-winning adaptation from directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Admittedly, it’s been a number of years since I saw that movie, which I do remember liking but just haven’t revisited it since, but this one – which marks director Steven Spielberg’s first-ever musical – pretty much immediately sheds any thought of comparison with the 1961 version, and exists as its own, absolutely fantastic entity. This is not only a pitch-perfect adaptation of the musical, featuring all the songs we know and love (with some repurposing throughout) performed beautifully, but one that expands on its themes, characters and especially the world itself to a point where it may even surpass the Oscar-winning adaptation from fifty years prior.
You should probably know the story by now, but just to be safe: it’s 1950s New York, where two gangs – the white, all-American Jets and the proudly Puerto Rican Sharks – and their respective leaders Riff (Mike Faist) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) are constantly butting heads with one another. Things come to a head when, at a school dance-off, Jets co-founder Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) lock eyes with each other and basically fall in love on the spot. As both gangs prepare for a decisive rumble, Tony and Maria struggle to achieve their happy ending together as they are bound by the forces from their respective sides, from Tony’s loyalty to Riff, to Maria’s family and strong connection to Bernardo’s girlfriend Rita (Ariana DeBose), which inevitably leads to pure tragedy.
Right off the bat, this may be one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies in a long, long time. It certainly contains some of his strongest direction in years, with a kind of energy you would have seen in classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park, especially in the musical numbers which are just glistening with life and dazzle at every corner. Whether it’s the opening Jets ballet recital or the big showstopping production of “America”, sparks fly everywhere from highly impressive choreography where every single performer is unmistakably in tune to the classic Bernstein score, and colourful cinematography captured by Spielberg regular Janusz Kamiński, who brings clever use of lighting and a gritty hand-held perspective to the rough-and-tumble nature of these warring gangs. For his first-ever musical, Spielberg is an absolute natural, as though he’s been doing these kinds of movies for years already (though when you consider some musical moments from past films like the dance sequences from 1941 or the opening credit sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in a way he kind of has).
However, what makes this version of West Side Story really stand out from its 1961 counterpart is how Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner push the boundaries of this story and really explore some of the underlying themes and character arcs that it presents. Both gangs seem to hail from an area of New York that is all but crumbled around them, demolished to make way for newer, much more pleasant apartments that none of them would likely be able to afford; it is interesting how it is both the Jets and Shark experiencing the pains of gentrification, because it seems to signify how both of their worlds are falling apart, from the Jets and their way of life to the Sharks’ home that they have settled into following migration. The Puerto Rican experience is also intriguingly portrayed here, with characters slipping into their native Spanish without the assistance of subtitles, and a focus on characters like Maria accepting low-end jobs as cleaners at fancy department stores, while the addition of Rita Moreno (who, of course, won an Oscar for the 1961 movie) as a repurposed version of the original Doc character helps bring a generational gaze to the struggles that her fellow Puerto Ricans are going through.
If there is one thing that prevents this movie from being truly flawless, it’s Ansel Elgort’s performance as Tony. While every single other performer is pitch-perfect, from Rachel Zegler’s superstar-making turn as Maria, to the incredibly charismatic turns by Mike Faist, David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose as Riff, Bernardo and Rita respectively, Elgort simply doesn’t have the energy or even that much charisma to sell either his character’s blossoming romance with Maria, or his own big musical numbers which, despite a passable singing voice, is nowhere near the level of Zegler’s angelic vocals. Everyone else is (literally) dancing circles around Elgort, who really is the one weak link of an otherwise fantastic movie.
Whether you are, like me, a huge admirer of the original musical, or coming into it completely cold, West Side Story is a film that can and should be enjoyed by just about everyone, from its brilliant staging of the classic songs, to how it expands upon certain themes that resonate strongly in 2021, all of which Spielberg makes surprisingly easy to pull off.
SO, TO SUM UP…
West Side Story is a fantastic musical adaptation that sees director Steven Spielberg at his most lively and energetic in years, bringing to life the classic songs and characters with heavy expansion that explores the themes and arcs in greater detail, with star-making turns by an exceptional young cast (barring Ansel Elgort’s lacking turn). It’s a 99% flawless revelation.