West Side Story (2021). Film review by Jason Day of the musical directed by Steven Spielberg

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Musical

image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

Film review by Jason Day of West Side Story (2021), the musical set in New York about two young lovers from different communities. Starring Ansel Elgort and directed by Steven Spielberg.

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Synopsis

Steven Spielberg’s update of the 1950’s musical – music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein – about rival gangs in New York, The Jets (Polish) and The Sharks (Puerto Rican). Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), sister of Shark Bernardo (David Alvarez), are the star-crossed lovers whose relationship adds further fissures to the factious balance of these communities and leads to tragedy.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

You can tell when a film director wants to show-off a little – they go for a good old, extended tracking shot.

Orson Welles pulled off a masterful, famous example in his 1959 thriller Touch of Evil (it formed most of the opening reel of the movie) so one can forgive a director of Spielberg’s stature for indulging himself a grand, sweeping shot of a bulldozered slum to open the film.

This is Spielberg’s first foray into musicals but given the vim and vigour he injects into this movie – and taking on Robert Wise’s much-loved 1961 version – although he very nearly made revisionist Peter Pan epic Hook (1991) as a tune-strewn piece.

Leading man Elgort’s name sounds like he’s a nerdy robotics engineer, but his singing is anything but geeky. He makes a sweet romance with lovely and affecting Zegler; like Elgort, she is a singer in real-life and is in great voice but, as with the original movie, the better playing comes from the brilliant supporting cast.

Stealing the show with the more interesting roles are an energetic Mike Faist as Jets leader Riff, Alvarez as Maria’s traditional, alpha male brother and Ariana DeBose as his earthy girlfriend. Complementing them are the fabulous groups of Sharks and Jets, who step up and make sure Justin Peck’s choreography always hits its mark.

The dancing is almost a character itself shown off to great advantage during the best sequence, the dance hall dance-off. The colour costume design here – with accents on cool blues for The Jets and fiery red for The Sharks – is a real visual feast.

Rita Moreno – who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the first movie – is now 89 and although she (understandably) less physical pizzazz, she looks extraordinarily good and works with the limitations of old age.

As Valentina, the diplomatic fulcrum on which these two aggressive communities hinge, she growls her dialogue out and the tune ‘Somewhere’ – sung by Maria in the play/original movie – is given to Moreno. The lyrics are prophetic and defiant and, as Moreno sings them, also deeply moving.

The neighbourhood outside her drug store home being pulled down is symbolic of the change in wider society (Officer Krupke tells the two gangs at the beginning of the movie to let go of their exterior surroundings as they’ll only end up moving on but commuting in to serve rich white people) but also of the woman herself. Her voice is cracked by decades of conflict resolution and in her mournful but shining eyes and shuffling gait, we see that she is tired of it all. Tired of fighting ‘the man’, tired of the gangs’ fights and tired of resisting time that marches on after claiming her beloved husband years ago.

It’s Moreno’s movie all the way. Watching this skillful and emotional remake, I wonder if Moreno might see herself up for the same Oscar category again for the same story.

Cast & credits

Director: Steven Spielberg. 2hr 36min/156min. 20th Century Studios/Amblin Entertainment/Amblin Partners/TSG Entertainment. (12a).

Producers: Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum, Steven Spielberg.
Writer: Tony Kushner.
Camera: Janusz Kaminski.
Music: Leonard Bernstein.
Sets: Adam Stockhausen.

Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Mike Faist, Josh AndrĂ©s Rivera, Iris Menas, David Aviles Morales, Sebastian Serra, Ricardo Zaya.

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