Steven Spielberg’s ambitious, albeit peculiar, attempt to remake his personal favourite musical pays off in a big way. West Side Story is a triumph that will not only delight fans of the Broadway production (and the 1961 film), but also introduce a new generation to the classic story of Maria and Tony – the star crossed lovers whose story is, in turn, inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.
Aside from a few standout musical numbers in The Color Purple (1985), Spielberg has never made a musical until now. According to him, it’s been an ambition to do so, and when it came to choosing one, there was no question which – the Broadway soundtrack was a staple in his home as a child, and it’s a film that has been close to his heart ever since.
Admittedly there was a lot of apprehension when this adaptation was announced, and even now it’s a difficult film to accept as part of his catalogue. It’s unlike anything he has made before, and yet it’s wonderful and mesmerising, just like so much of his previous work.
Opening with a glorious crane shot over the ruins of the decrepit West Side of New York City, where major redevelopment is underway, his film paints a striking picture of a lower class neighbourhood occupied by two rival gangs –the Jets and the Sharks – who clash over race and territory. The Jets are white Americans and the Sharks are Latino Americans, and when the Jets’ leader, Tony, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Shark’s leader, tensions rise and an all-out turf war erupts, culminating in a deadly rumble.
It’s a classic story that Spielberg mostly leaves intact, recreating the atmosphere of the 1961 film with a nostalgic lens and presenting the story with the same tone and atmosphere. The courtyards and alleyways are consumed with brooding dankness and far-reaching shadows, while the daytime streetscapes are dramatically over-lit, giving the audience a sense of theatre.
Huge curbside dance sequences are awash with spotlights from all sides, with the impression that there’s a lighting rig above, much like a stage show. Meanwhile, interior sequences are draped with colour and materials, such as curtains presenting silhouettes and fancy scarves for characters to fling about. Spielberg has pulled everything he has up his sleeve to make his musical as wonderful for audiences as he recalls the original being.
And let’s not call this a remake, but rather a new adaptation of the stage show, because there are components from the Broadway version that he has adhered to, such as the song arrangements, which may feel new to those who are only familiar with the film. Some of the song locations have been changed, and a couple of characters have been given contemporary makeovers, all of which give the film a new social relevance.
Admittedly, it’s a tricky film to get into, because being a classic show tune musical and upholding the spirit of those classic stage shows, the audience is introduced to these violent gangs through a style of dancing that looks like prancing, which is hard to relate to knife-wielding thugs. Nevertheless, Spielberg’s pursuit of transcending cinema overcomes any initial cringe factor and ultimately taps into a dark and important subtext.
This version is grittier and much weightier in its tail end. In fact, the final act is surprisingly violent and confronting, and perhaps drives home the story’s message harder than ever before. All of those long arching shadows, which clash on the pavement, portend an inevitable outcome, and the themes of cultural differences, assimilation and acceptance are a powerful allegory for modern society’s shortcomings.
The cast is excellent, with Rachel Zegler giving the standout performance and making a spectacular film debut – there is no question she will be an A-lister before long. And Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) is charming as Tony, investing the character with a greater sense of humanity than was previously conveyed. His handsome, fresh-faced looks along with Zegler’s doe-eyed beauty conjures a convincing teenage romance – the story of Tony and Maria has never resonated so profoundly.
And as a treat for fans of the 1961 film, Rita Morano (the original Anita) assumes the role of Valentina, a gender-reversal of Tony’s elderly mentor (previously “Doc” played by Ned Glass). She is simply wonderful and offers a heartfelt turn as the one figure who stands a chance of impacting change.
Steven Spielberg is unlikely to ever direct a musical again, but you’ll be swept away by his romanticism and unrivalled mastery of the genre here. Even when you remove all of the singing and dancing, what’s left is a beautiful looking piece of cinema where every frame is composed with precision and no split second is without purpose. How lucky he is to have adapted a childhood favourite, and how lucky we are to have received it.
In cinemas: December 26
Starring: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose
Directed by: Steven Spielberg