Even for a filmmaker of Steven Spielberg‘s stature, it’s safe to say that taking on a property such as West Side Story would still be a daunting task. The 1961 cinematic adaptation of the 1957 Broadway production was awarded 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and has remained something of a cultural criterion in the decades since.
In many ways it’s easy to take a director like Spielberg for granted. We come to expect greatness from him, and though even at his most mediocre he’s still a commendable auteur, his gorgeously rendered musical is the most alive he has felt on screen in over a decade; the exciting animation of The Adventures of Tintin in 2011 being used as the reference point.
Essentially a variation of the classic “Romeo & Juliet” narrative, West Side Story bases itself around the forbidden love between Maria (Rachel Zegler, defining the term “star-making performance”) and Tony (a velvety-voiced Ansel Elgort). Immediately drawn to each other after catching eyes across a crowded gymnasium floor at a local dance – their attraction being the epitome of love at first sight – their relationship is doomed from the beginning though, with the surrounding conflict between street gangs the Jets and the Sharks weighing down any chance for their love to blossom.
Tony is a Jet, a gang of white men, whilst Maria is intertwined with the Sharks, a Puerto Rican collective, due to her brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), being their fearless leader. Bernardo’s consistent clashing with Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist) and his relationship with Anita (Ariana DeBose, another absolute knockout performer), Maria’s friend and roommate, further add complications to Maria and Tony’s contact. All in all, it really gives the star-crossed lovers plenty to sing and dance about.
As is the case with nearly all remakes – or updates or reboots, however you wish to define such a revisit – there’s always the valid reason to ask why is another version necessary. The original being such a celebrated property means Spielberg’s West Side Story comes with its own baggage and expectations, but the topical significance of opposing race wars and the placement of people of colour behind the entitled mentality of the white man means this decades-old tale is (sadly) incredibly relevant in today’s climate.
Elgort, who has always been something of a blank slate in his on-screen turns, should be someone who makes a lasting impression as Tony, but he’s completely swallowed whole by the ensemble around him, with Zegler and DeBose, in particular, seizing every opportunity given to walk, or more correctly dance, away with the film. Tony and Maria’s story should be the emotional crux of West Side Story, but it isn’t the most interesting narrative, with the conflict between Bernardo and Riff instilling a far more brutal temperament into the story, and Anita’s desire to be more than just her skin colour proving far more poignant.
Though its mammoth 156 minute running time is sometimes felt – particularly in the film’s backend, where it becomes a particularly sullen affair – Spielberg’s ability to transport us to 1950’s New York remains untouched. This is a gorgeous, specific-looking film that manages to avoid emotional manipulation as it aims for the psychological jugular.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
West Side Story is screening in Australian theatres from December 26th, 2021.