Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ is everything that a movie musical should be

The second film adaptation of Bernstein and Sondheim’s 1957 musical is a cinema highlight of 2021

Starring Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, and Rachel Zegler

Looking at recent releases, it would be impossible not to notice the seeming surge in movie musicals. From Dear Evan Hansen, to The Prom, to Tick…Tick…Boom! and even In the Heights, the love for this medium of storytelling has never been so keenly felt. With a 1961 Academy Award winning film adaptation already in existence, another movie of West Side Story was perhaps not the most expected release, but with the addition of brilliant new depth in Tony Kushner’s updated screenplay, as well as a key focus put upon old-style movie magic, gorgeous and dynamic cinematography and choreography – not to mention the stunningly realised score – Steven Spielberg has seemingly achieved the impossible in producing a near-flawless piece of art.

Originally a 1957 Broadway musical, West Side Story‘s 1961 film version broke the record for Academy Award nominations, with 11, and won a staggering 10, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno, who executive produces this 2021 version. With the late Stephen Sondheim’s approval, Spielberg’s version wisely does not detract from or attempt to reinvent what makes West Side Story so appealing in the first place.

The film starts in typically spectacular fare, with an impressive tracking shot that shows the rubble of the Upper West Side of New York where gang warfare reigns. In the distance, the iconic score can be heard, steadily creeping nearer. It’s everything that Les Miserables‘ 2012 adaptation wishes that it was. Yet, instead of shying away from its musical roots, West Side Story thoroughly embraces them. From the soaring sound of the New York Philharmonic, to Justin Peck’s stylised movement (heavily inspired by Jerome Robbins) there is a real sense of unabashed love for this medium of storytelling.

An iconic story, West Side Story serves as an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, with our star-crossed lovers falling on opposite sides of a turf war. There are the Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), opposed by the Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). These gangs are further divided by their race, with the Jets taking umbrage at the Puerto Rican Sharks infringing upon their perceived territory. A local dance is where Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jet and best friend of Riff, meets María (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo’s younger sister of whom he is obsessively and dogmatically protective, and they fall instantly in love.

While the main tenets of the story remain in tact, Spielberg and Kushner work hard to contextualise and give further depth to the material. The futility of the Jets and the Sharks skirmish is highlighted, for example, by the fact that the community is being torn down by the city itself to make way for the Lincoln Center. It introduces the further concept of class relations, with Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) making it clear that only the Puerto Ricans and the whites who have yet to attain money remain. While the less well off fight over the rubble, the elite plan where they are going to watch opera. The war that Riff and Bernardo hold so dearly has already been won, and neither of them prove the victor.

Tony is also given more facets, with his reticence to engage in Riff’s hijinks contextualised by a recent prison stint which has left him scarred by his own potential and reminding him of the need to reform. This gives Tony’s later actions far more justification, and also makes him seem more sympathetic, knowing that he is making an effort to improve himself despite his past.

It’s Rita Moreno’s inclusion that arguably has the largest, most poignant change to the narrative. Instead of Tony’s mentor being Doc, 2021’s West Side Story replaces Doc with his own widow, Valentina (Moreno). This has the effect of giving Tony and María an example of a valid, functioning ethnically diverse pairing and also further complicates the Jets’ attitudes towards race. The effect of having Valentina sing “Somewhere” highlights her incredible despair, as she gazes upon the photo of herself and her dead husband, lamenting the pain that has been brought to a couple just like themselves, and how little the world has changed with time.

Spielberg also attempts to right some of the wrongs of 1961’s West Side Story, through a concerted effort to cast legitimate Latinx performers – a far cry from white performers wearing dark makeup (even Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the 1961 version, was forced to wear dark makeup and speak with an exaggerated accent to play Anita). Far more nuance is also afforded to the Puerto Rican characters and how they interact with the concept of the American Dream. Anita, for example, early in the film sings about the beauty of living in America, before reasserting her Puerto Rican heritage after being assaulted by the Jets. Rita Moreno’s Valentina also makes it clear that the only reason that the Jets accept her is because they interpret her to be white because she married a white man, and she is very clear that she is still proud of her Puerto Rican heritage. While there’s no avoiding the fact that this film was written by white men, extensive research into Puerto Rican history was undergone before even rehearsal took place to enable the performers to understand Puerto Rican existence in the late 1950s.

Spielberg also consciously incorporates large sections of Spanish dialogue without subtitles. His justification for this is to give equal weighting and respect to both English and Spanish – otherwise, to subtitle the Spanish dialogue with English – would have given unnecessary weight and importance to the English language. Furthermore, Spielberg also includes some subtle differences in the ways that the Jets are treated in comparison to the Sharks by the police – a clear symmetry on contemporary race relations with the police. Additionally, Anybodys, who is typically portrayed as a tomboy, is here shown as transgender and even portrayed by a transgender performer, Ezra Menas.

Little changes also have quite a significant impact, with “Cool” being reconceived as Tony trying to talk the Jets down from taking on the Sharks that evening. To see the Jets turn against Tony, as well as the storyline involving Riff purchasing a gun helps the later elements of the story be more cohesive and also adds a certain level of inevitability and tension to the impending doom.

West Side Story is bolstered by some truly phenomenal performances. Elgort and Zegler’s chemistry is incredibly believable and helps the audience to truly immerse themselves within their doomed romance. Zegler gives a star turn here, imbuing her María with the necessary amount of naïvety and innocence, without appearing cloying or grating. Moreno is also a predictably stable presence, bringing immense warmth and reassurance to each scene she appears in.

Stealing the show, however, has to be Ariana DeBose. A Tony nominee, giving stunning performances in both The Prom and Schmigadoon! in the past year, it would hardly be surprising if this appearance earned her an Academy Award. She is infinitely captivating any time that she appears on screen. Every movement, every note, every line bristles with intent. She brings every facet that one would expect from an Anita and then some. She is not just forthright and confident, but also manages to flip this on its head in the second half, turning in an incredibly devastating performance to tug on the audience’s heartstrings. “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love” is a standout for the strength of its taut, emotive performances from Zegler and DeBose.

West Side Story truly fires on all cylinders. There simply isn’t an element of its production which is lacking. In addition to the aforementioned strong writing and performances, Adam Stockhausen’s production design, with genuinely astounding scale of sets, truly help to immerse the audience in the realism of the emerging tale. Nor does this design, nor indeed Paul Tazewell’s costumes, shy away from colour in order to tell a serious story.

The choreography is energetic and makes no apologies. Musical numbers such as “America” bristle with joyous energy and are a true visual feast on screen. The cinematography (Janusz Kaminski) is spectacular throughout, at turns turning musical numbers frenetic with its alternating between close ups and wide shots, to a muted, resigned emptiness and stillness.

At its heart, 2021’s West Side Story is a lesson in how to do a movie musical well. Instead of shying away from its musical vocabulary and apologising for its presence within the story, it is inherent to the language of the film. The music and dance is celebrated as an integral part of the storytelling, and with star turn performances across the board, there’s no doubt that West Side Story is just as much of a classic – if not more so – than its predecessor.

West Side Story was released in cinemas on December 10th.

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