The Plot: New York, 1957. The Italian-American gang The Jets lead by Riff (Mike Faist) are on the verge of war with rival Puerto Rican gang The Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) is there to keep the peace, but it’s not going to last. Former Jet and reformed convict Tony (Ansel Elgort) catches the eye of Bernardo’s wide-eyed younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a school dance. A tender romance blossoms, but the path to true love is far from easy. It’s going to be the powder keg that will set the two gangs off against each other in this west side story…
The Verdict: It’s taken him nearly half a century, but Steven Spielberg has finally scratched the itch that has been at him over the years. There were inklings of it early on in his rousing opening for Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, in which his future wife Kate Capshaw belted out Anything Goes in Mandarin in a lavish Busby Berkeley-style sequence. Spielberg has always wanted to direct a full-scale musical and now we have it in an attractively-packaged new take on the classic Broadway show West Side Story. It was of course adapted into a well-regarded, Oscar-winning film by Robert Wise 60 years ago. The shadow of the original looms large over Spielberg’s take and he shows due reverence for it by casting Rita Moreno (who played Anita back then) in a supporting role and brought her onboard as an executive producer. What’s more important though is that Spielberg confidently dances his way out of that shadow to project his own storey-tall shadow among the crumbling buildings of the Upper West Side as it makes way for gentrification.
The keyword here is freshness. This is a new take on the Arthur Laurents stage play, adapted by Spielberg’s occasional collaborator Tony Kushner who also wrote Lincoln and Munich. The story set-up is a loose reworking of Romeo & Juliet set among two rival gangs and the two star-crossed lovers caught between them. There’s even a balcony scene, but this is a somewhat grittier take on the story. The finger-clicking opening sequence and subsequent brawl sees an interface between a nail and an ear. Flick-knives and a rogue gun are not far behind, with the consequences of violence felt tragically hard among its characters. Spielberg and Kushner have adapted the story to be less theatrical and stagebound and more cinematic, opening out the story to approach something that bit more realistic. This extends to the casting too, with relative newcomers from more ethnically correct backgrounds filling out the roles. It soon becomes clear that the young cast are giving 110% in their performances, with Spielberg gently pushing them to find the right balance of emotion and conviction in their warring characters.
Actors are not generally known for their singing abilities. Even Audrey Hepburn had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon for My Fair Lady. Spielberg has made a real find in Rachel Zegler, who bears a certain resemblance to Christina Ricci. Just out of high school having played Maria in stage productions, Zegler has a superb singing voice. She wrenches out the emotion when required but also finds the inner fire in her hot Latin blood. Her Maria is sweet and full of youthful innocence, but also wise to the world and her station in life. It’s a promising screen debut and she’s equally matched by Baby Driver himself, Ansel Elgort. He not only has that chiselled matinee-idol look and screen presence, but he can sing convincingly. While there a number of excellent supporting characters and a colourful backdrop to the events of the story, it’s crucial to nail the characters of Maria and Tony to make the story elements work together. Trust Spielberg to ensure that there are no weak links here and the cast is impressive as actors, singers and dancers as a result.
The music and songs, including some by the late Stephen Sondheim, are characters in themselves. He moves the toe-tapping ‘America’ from a night-time rooftop to a vibrant daytime street dance sequence. The choreography and direction here is flawless, bringing out the colour and style of the time period with flair. Even the fight sequences have a coordinated rhythm to them, like a dance of death between the Jets and the Sharks as they battle for supremacy. Spielberg’s direction is confident without being showy, carefully calibrating the disparate elements into a well-engineered music box of a film that reveals one hit song after another. It’s how Spielberg controls all these elements so well that impresses the most. His high ambitions haven’t always translated well on screen (he unsuccessfully tried screwball comedy with 1941), but there’s a sense here that he knows the musical genre well enough to have a decent crack at it. He’s delivered in spades with this new take on West Side Story. Like its characters towards the end, it’s a worthy enough show stopper of a film that comfortably stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor. Bravo, Mr Spielberg.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
West Side Story
West Side Story (USA / 12A / 156 mins)
In short: A show stopper
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Corey Stoll, Rita Moreno.