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Review: West Side Story

December 11, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

In his five decades of making feature films, Steven Spielberg has never directed a full-on musical, but his visual style and cinematic sense of scope has always suggested he would be good at one.

This all changes with West Side Story, his long-gestating remake of the 1961 Oscar-winning film, that serves as a slightly updated but still faithful adaptation of the original 1957 Broadway musical with songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

I’ll admit I was skeptical about the need to remake the classic Best Picture winner, but I think Spielberg has pulled it off, and, well, I hope that he makes another musical. Because West Side Story is dazzling in terms of spectacle, and worth seeing for its excellent cinematography, production design and choreography alone.

Right from the opening scene, as the constantly moving camera appears to float through the rubble of partially torn down buildings in a 1950s New York neighbourhood that is in the process of being gentrified, the film is a visually stunning experience. The cinematography by Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski is often breathtaking, setting up one eye-popping composition after another, and making memorable use of light and shadow.

These few city blocks have become the flashpoint for a turf war between two street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. This rivalry provides the dramatic backdrop for a love story between two young people from different backgrounds; the white Tony (Ansel Elgort) and the Puerto Rican María (Rachel Zegler), who lives with her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his girlfriend Anita (an energetic Ariana DeBose). But their relationship causes trouble on both sides, with Bernardo being a member of the Sharks, and Tony a former member of the Jets who is still friends with their leader Riff (Mike Faist, a cast standout who brings surprising depth to the role).

The screenplay by Tony Kushner makes a few small updates, including fleshing out the tensions between the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are made up of the poor white people who weren’t wealthy enough to move out of the slums, causing them to grow resentful of the Puerto Rican immigrants coming in who they see as taking over their businesses. Kushner’s script really leans into the themes of gentrification and racial violence, which were present in the original as well, as the story follows the same structure of building to a massive rumble between the two gangs and its tragic aftermath.

The biggest upgrade in this version of West Side Story is the film’s racially authentic casting of the Latino characters (there’s none of the original’s outdated “brownface”), led by young newcomer Zegler who landed the role through an online casting call. Rita Moreno, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Anita in the original film sixty years ago, also returns to portray new character Valentina, a refashioned version of mentor figure Doc. At 90-years-old, Moreno shines in the role, including a heart-wrenching rendition of “Somewhere.”

Spielberg and Kaminski do a great job of staging the musical numbers, including a vibrant and colourful take on “America,” with longer takes that actually allow us to enjoy the dancing and choreography by Justin Peck, with the free-flowing camera complimenting the movement onscreen. The use of lighting is also notable, including in the gorgeously photographed set-piece when María and Tony first meet during a dance in the high school auditorium, which features some tasteful lens flares.

At its heart, West Side Story is an urban take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, telling a story about the futility of violence and how it moves in cycles once it starts. Yes, the narrative beats remain basically the same, and the 1961 film will always hold a special place in my heart. But this new West Side Story is a vibrant piece of filmmaking in its own right, that allows us to experience the classic musical numbers in a new way.

Spielberg updates the material in a few subtle ways, but his West Side Story mainly works as a glorious and colourful “they don’t make ’em like they used to” movie musical. I guess the moral of the story is to never doubt Steven Spielberg, who is still at the top of his game, making a splash delivering his first musical fifty years into an incredible career.

West Side Story is now playing exclusively in theatres.

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