West Side Story
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Stars: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll
When it was announced that Stephen Spielberg was to direct a new cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s musical masterpiece ‘West Side Story, itself an NYC-set update of Romeo and Juliet playing out between the Latino and white community, the main question was why bother? Problematic casting decisions aside – chiefly having the non-Latina Natalie Wood playing Puerto Rican heroine Maria – Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 cinematic adaptation is rightly acknowledged as a classic. Thankfully, as well as righting the casting issues, this new version more than justifies its existence via a more grittier, realist treatment and script tweaks from Tony Kushner that lean impressively into the more sociological aspects of the tale.
A rousingly realised opening sequence has the all-white gang, The Jets, led by wiry punk Riff (Faist), defacing a mural Puerto Rican mural, before rival Latino gang The Sharks, fronted by boxer Bernardo (Alvarez), arrive to face them down. That this rumble takes place on a demolition site underlines the futility of turf wars; both communities are about to shunted on by urban developers.
Raff decides to arrange one last one rumble with The Sharks to assert dominance, and tries to recruit his old friend and gang comrade Tony (Elgort) to his campaign. But Tony, who has recently finished a jail sentence for almost punching a man to death, is trying to stay out of trouble, and is now working for ageing widow Valentina (Moreno) at her drugstore. Then at a high school dance thrown to try to soothe racial tensions Tony meets and falls for Maria (Zegler), Bernardo’s sister, but romance proves hard to pursue in the internecine environment.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s ever-curious and kinetic camerawork adds an extra thrill to the dance sequences as Spielberg takes numbers like the rousing ‘America’ out into the teeming streets, while ‘Cool is restaged as a thrillingly intense gun-juggling ballet. The actual songs and orchestration remain unaltered which is understandable as the originals are unimprovable.
As for the leads, Elgort is a little too baby-faced to convince as a man with a violent fast but he certainly feels more ‘street’ that Richard Beymer’s drippy reading of the part in the previous film adaptation. Newcomer Zegler manages to invest the Maria character, hitherto essayed as a naïve innocent, with a real spikiness and she sings beautifully. The supporting cast are excellent: as played by Faist, Raff’s cynical exterior belies something more wounded and thoughtful, while Alvarez’s Bernardo is an intelligent and wily man stuck in a prejudicial mindset. Best of all is Ariana DeBose as Maria’s spirited friend Anita, her journey from effervescent firecracker to broken woman is the picture’s most moving journey. New character Valentina, played by the eighty-nine-year-old Moreno who played Anita in the ‘61 movie, proves a worthy addition and her gently longing reading of ‘Somewhere’ is a heart-tugging highlight.
Commendably, Kushner’s script upgrades the depiction of the Latino characters from the cartoonish originals, with the actors often speaking fairly long stretches of unsubtitled Spanish dialogue. The white characters, predominantly from Irish and Polish backgrounds, also have societal prejudices to deal with. In what if probably the film’s best non-musical and most nuanced scene, Corey Stoll’s racist cop Lt. Schrank tries to give the Jets a pep talk, but his perversely well-meaning attempt at bucking them up only serves to demean them further.
West Side Story is released on 10th December
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