West Side Story Review

When this was announced, I have to admit that I was very sceptical about this. I remember watching a 70mm print of the 1961 version of West Side Story at the National Media Museum in Bradford years ago and loving it and I wasn’t sure what a new film version could do to improve upon the original. However, I am happy to say that I was proven wrong and that I should have had faith in Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner to do this version justice. I can’t quite say yet whether I prefer the original or this version, but I would say that they are on par.

Set in the Upper West Side of New York, the film focuses on the gangs the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, over control over the neighbourhood. In order to end the conflict the leaders of the gangs, Riff and Bernardo respectively, agree to a winner takes all rumble. Within this conflict is Tony, who was formerly a member of the Jets but who left after going to prison for nearly killing someone in a previous rumble, and Maria, the sister of Bernardo who wants to make an independent life in America. The two meet together at a dance and fall in love with each other, although the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks creates a lot of difficulties for them. Now the original musical is a classic for a reason and all of the excellent songs are in place here. The order of them has been shifted around compared to both the stage version and the original film, for example Cool has been moved to before the rumble, but the general vibe of the songs are still present. The screenplay by Tony Kushner though has made some changes in terms of the social commentary of the film. The themes of racial prejudice present in the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks are still as relevant as they were in the original, but some of the context has now changed. For example, the time period of the film is clearly shown to be when areas of the Upper West Side were being torn down to make way for The Lincoln Centre and themes of gentrification are brought more to the forefront. There are also elements of characters that have been changed. In this version the character of Anybodys is shown to be transgender and Doc has been replaced with Valentina, who is shown to be Doc’s widow and creates a parallel between Tony and Maria. These elements all help demonstrate the power that West Side Story can still have and how, in the right circumstances, it is still a timeless musical.

The performances on the whole are strong. Rachel Zegler makes an incredible impression as Maria. Her singing voice has this great power to it and her eyes are very expressive, making her a magnetic screen presence. Mike Faist as Riff does a good job at showing the loyalty he has to the Jets and his fear over the changes in the neighbourhood, along with how his racist attitudes towards the Puerto Rican community have manifested, helping to make Riff a compelling character. David Alvarez as Bernardo does a good job at showing his attitude towards the Sharks and the resentment he feels over his treatment in America, along with his more controlling side, but we also see the love that he has for Anita well and how he is driven by loyalty for his community. Ariana DeBose as Anita is great at showing her initial love for America and the life she could have in New York, along with how this is shattered as she experiences first hand the discrimination faced by the Puerto Rican community. Rita Moreno as Valentina is magnetic throughout the film and her performance of Somewhere is a powerful tear jerker. All of these performers have great singing voices which help to give the songs the power they need to work and helps this version stand out. The weak link of the cast though is Ansel Elgort as Tony. He’s decent enough throughout the film, doing a good job at selling Tony wanting to change his former ways, but his singing voice doesn’t have the same power that the other cast members have and whilst it isn’t enough to make the film worse, he is the weakest member of the cast.

The technical elements of the film are also excellent. This film reminds you why Steven Spielberg is considered to be one of the best directors working today and his visual style is so well suited for musicals that I was a bit surprised to see that he hadn’t directed a musical before. The colour coordination of greens and blues for the Jets and reds and yellows for the Sharks gives the film a distinct visual style and things like the use of lens flares throughout the film and framing the visuals One Hand, One Heart through a stained glass window create some beautiful visual tableaus. The choreography of the dance numbers is also strong, helping to give a lot of life to the film and, in some ways, I think the choreography here works better than in the original, in terms of how it fits more naturally with the wider visual style of the film.

Overall, I thought this version of West Side Story was a great update and works well at justifying its existence. Spielberg’s direction and Janusz Kaninski’s cinematography, along with the choreography, give the film a unique visual feel to make it stand out compared to the original, whilst Tony Kushner’s screenplay knows where to make the updates to ensure that it remains as powerful a story, working well in conjunction with the songs to give the film it’s power. I wasn’t expecting this to be as good as it was when it was announced, but I ended up really enjoying it.

My Rating: 4.5/5

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