It’s sacred territory, of course: the original 1961 Robert Wise adaptation has been secure for decades as a classic movie musical. Keeping its time and place – New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s – Steven Spielberg’s dense and intense version infuses the truth of Sondheim’s lyrics more strongly than the early 60s would allow. And all while sustaining the colourful, Shakesperean melodrama that wraps around the reality.
Mike Faist as Riff (centre). Photo: Disney/20th Century Studios
The authenticity explodes everywhere like fireworks. Cindy Tolan casts exclusively Latinx actors for the Puerto Rican roles, showing the advance in 50 years from the expired days of brownfacing. Even the dances are integrally Hispanic, harking back to the developing styles of the time.
Although much of these veracious pursuits would’ve been required regardless, Spielberg aims to capture a more tangible realism – plunging closer to the action, the politics, the communities, the white American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski opens at ground level: gliding, phantom-like, through the grey rubble of demolished buildings. It’s a skeleton of a former neighbourhood, torn down for a new performing arts school. The fury builds on both sides.
The Jets click their fingers below their waists. Some of the camp theatricalities are turned down, creating a gritty, menacing atmosphere that's more believable despite the dancing. Said Jets blame the immigrants for their problems, especially the Puerto Ricans, who simultaneously despise the Jets for their racism. At times, Spielberg draws from Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange and its shadowy, disorderly droogs – the ‘Rumble’ scene even feels like a visual homage.
That musical grit doesn’t extend to Ansel Elgort as Tony, the ex-Jet on parole who falls in love with the Puerto Rican María. Elgort is like a Ken doll compared to any of the Jets, wielding a smiley, lineless face that doesn't suit Tony's violent backstory.
But the face fits Tony’s romantic naivety, which is softer in some ways than María’s. Rachel Zegler plays her with bright-eyed verve, more thrilling and liberated than her strapping male counterpart. María's nerdy but hopeful partner Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) never stood a chance. Such passion and innocence only exacerbate the tragedy to come. These people are just kids after all, in spirit if not in body.
Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez as Anita and Bernardo. Photo: Disney/20th Century Studios
As with all the set pieces, Spielberg treats the musical numbers with more intimacy. He and Kaminski dive into the characters while never distracting from Justin Peck’s masterful choreography or Leonard Bernstein’s pulsing and poignant tunes.
America is still a thunderously thoughtful banger. It's sung and danced to perfection on a glistening street, salted with hilarious, seductive and argumentative chemistry by Anita (Ariana DeBose) and Bernardo (David Alvarez). Some songs even hit harder because of what's changed and not changed since they were written. The original Anita, Rita Moreno, stars as an aged, moralistic witness in the remake and she’s deservedly given Somewhere. It’s hard to think of her rendition without crying.
Spielberg’s West Side Story is one of the most upsetting, beautiful, and brilliant arguments for authenticity on screen. The story itself is modified only slightly by Pulitzer-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner, but the proud diversity engenders deeper pangs and connections with the characters. Tolan even casts the nonbinary actor Iris Menas as the trans character Anybodys, who, despite an all-too-brief appearance, earns immediate empathy because of that genuineness.
As such, this remake is a stunning success that won’t be dating anytime soon.
West Side Story (2021) is in cinemas from Friday 10 December.
|West Side Story (2021) review
10 Dec 21 – 10 Dec 22, TIMES VARY
|£ determined by cinemas
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