VOD film review: West Side Story (2021)
Ivan Radford | On 06, Mar 2022
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno
The idea of a modern remake of West Side Story might seem like an anachronism to some, but from the opening frames of Steven Spielberg’s glorious, vibrant adaptation of the classic musical, any such concerns are brushed aside with colourful spectacle and show-stopping compassion. What’s immediately apparent is that the director is fully aware of the complexities and conflicts at play within the original stage show – and its iconic 1971 film version – but he not only takes steps to correct them, he also leans into them in a way that’s completely disarming.
The set-up remains, of course, the same. Taking a leaf from Romeo & Juliet, it’s a love story that follows Tony (Ansel Elgort), a young white American, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), a young Puerto Rican, both of whom live in New York’s Upper West Side. It’s a neighbourhood that’s become the battleground for two rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks, who are keen to make the area their own turf. The 1961 movie was filmed in part on those very streets, which were about to be demolished to make way for the Lincoln Centre. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner wrap that legacy into the very fabric of their interpretation.
The opening sequence, a bravura crane shot whisking us through a rubble-strewn shell of a town, foregrounds that looming destruction as a way to level the playing field: in these streets, despite the gangs’ competing demands to carve out a territory that they can feel is their home, both sides are doomed without a future, with nobody emerging as a winner. Lieutenant Schrank (an excellent Corey Stoll) spells this out to them as he breaks up their latest brawl, while also making it clear that the police are just as tribal and prejudiced as these young gang members.
These kind of tweaks are all over the production, which manages to both preserve the source text and reframe it in a way that’s more inclusive and modern. The tomboy figure of Anybody is now a trans man, played by non-binary actor Iris Menas. The part of Doc has evolved into Valentina, his widow, who now runs the drugstore where Tony is based and is played by the legend Rita Moreno (the 1961 film’s Anita). The casting of Latinx actors to play the Sharks also helps to address the white-heavy lens of the original, a decision further amplified by the inspired idea of letting the characters speak to each other without subtitles. In this Montague-Capulet contest, both households are alike in dignity, which gives an added sting to the ironic lyrics of the song America.
The result is a beautifully conceived canvas upon which to paint the timeless tale of romantic tragedy. If anything, that’s the only weakness here: it’s no coincidence that it’s taken this long in the review to get round to discussing Tony and Maria in any depth. Rachel Zegler is warm and wistful as the innocent young Maria, but only gets a chance to sink her teeth into something of substance in the story’s second half, while the casting of Ansel Elgort raises its own distracting questions that undermine Tony’s own romantic charisma.
But the supporting cast around the central couple are so richly performed that it’s easy to become immersed in what is an ensemble tale. Mike Faist’s old-behind-his-naivety Riff, the leader of the Jets, is a gruffly deadend counterpart to Elgort’s ex-convict looking for redemption, while David Alvarez is as heartfelt as he is fiery as Sharks leader Bernardo, Maria’s protective older brother. Ariana DeBose steals every scene she’s in as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita, making the character not only a key narrative force but a family member with lived-in relationships that instantly convince.
And yet perhaps the biggest star of all is Spielberg, whose lovingly assembled love letter to musicals sings with sentiment as well as spectacle. Justin Peck’s choreography brings energy to Stephen Sondheim’s songs and Leonard Bernstein’s score, and sequences in the dancehall and in the fire escape outside Maria’s home are thrilling set pieces in their own right. Almost every frame could be frozen and admired, thanks to the sumptuous cinematography and uncanny production design, at once heightened and grounded to the point where it’s like watching a film from 60 years ago you’ve just discovered in a canister in your back garden. It’s anachronistic, but it embraces that fact – and the result feels like the most natural thing in the world.