Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and Rita Moreno
Arguably the most well-known director of all time, Stephen Spielberg, has gone all out again for his latest film, the second film adaptation of the classic Romeo and Juliet inspired musical West Side Story. With a career like Spielberg’s, he has nothing left to prove, but he is still reaching for something new. It’s been three years since his last film, the CGI-fest and surprisingly decent Ready Player One, and now West Side Story is finally released, which also marks his first musical.
Two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, fight for control of San Juan Hill neighbourhood in New York. They’re both planning a large brawl to decide who can keep the territory, with the Jets hoping their founder Tony (Ansel Elgort) to back them up. Tony has spent a year in prison after a previous fight that went too far and wants to leave that life behind him. He then goes to the school dance, feeling like he doesn’t have a choice, and falls immediately in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), whose brother runs the Sharks. The tension between the two rival gangs grows reaching the breaking point, with Tony and Maria stuck in the middle of it.
The film is very similar to the previous adaptation, with a few changes here and there. Some of the songs are sang in a different order, and in different locations. Most notable is the scene where Maria and Tony go on a date together, before discussing how to stop the big fight. It’s a good addition and makes sense. One of the stranger changes is the choice to change Maria and her friends from working in a bridal shop to being cleaners. It doesn’t make that much difference to the overall story, but as pointed out by writers such as Aurora Flores, it ignores the important historical presence of Puerto Ricans in the garment industry, which was present in the 1961 film.
The story still resonates, even if some of the changes make little sense. The idea of trying to find somewhere you belong, is sadly just as relevant now as when West Side Story was first produced as a musical on stage in 1957. That’s what the two gangs are fighting for, wanting to belong in the neighbourhood they live in, there’s an irony to that as well, since the neighbourhood is being torn down, which the police point out early in film when they break up the first fight.
The classic songs are all still here. Even people who aren’t familiar at all with the stage musical or 1961 film will still most likely recognise songs like ‘America’, ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘Maria’. The lyrics may be slightly changes at points, but they still work. ‘America’ is still the biting look at how immigrants are treated in America, as it was in 1961. The lyrics, that were changed from the more positive stage musical for the 1961 film, feel like something that could have been written today. It’s also very fitting that Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 film, plays Valentina (a reimagining of the character Doc), and sings ‘somewhere’, showing how the main themes still matter.
The visuals of the film are beautiful. There’s a washed-out saturated look to the colours that makes it feel authentically from the 1950s. The choreography, by Justin Peck is brilliant, with every song looking as grand and dramatic as possible. It’s a joy to watch. The scenes with Spanish dialogue aren’t subtitled, because Spielberg wanted to respect the language and not double down on English.
Rachel Zegler is absolutely wonderful as Maria. This is her first full-length film, and she’s stunning in it. There’s so much emotion in every scene that she’s in. Mike Faist as Riff is also great. Everyone in the cast feels natural and effortless. The weakest link is Ansel Elgort, who doesn’t quite fit Tony. He’s okay, but he feels awkward in places, especially when he turns up to the school dance looking more like a teacher chaperone than a teenager. There are moments where it’s hard to believe that Maria would fall in love with him so instantly. He’s not horrendous in the role, but there must have been someone better.
West Side Story is still a great time. It’s too early to say if this is just as great as the 1961 adaptation, but it definitely captures the energy and vibrancy Spielberg’s first epic musical is a giant success.
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