West Side Story (2021) – Spielbergs adaptation is cinematic perfection


West Side Story is showing now in cinemas nationwide.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When it was announced in 2019 that Steven Spielberg intended to remake Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking 1961 film, West Side Story, many asked why? This was a sensible question considering how many poor remakes have found their way to our screens over the years. But this was Spielberg, so what could go wrong? The answer was plenty; after all, the 1961 version of West Side Story carried a place in the hearts of millions as one of the best movie musicals ever made, an untouchable cinematic gem. Thankfully, after a long wait due to COVID, Spielberg’s West Side Story is just as beautiful, magnificent and lavish as we had hoped; in fact, it’s as close to cinematic perfection as you can get.

In reworking West Side Story for a modern audience, Spielberg pays homage to the original while delicately updating and rethinking some of the 1961 film’s themes. Speilberg’s West Side Story is youthful and vibrant, with a more natural Maria and Tony, an emboldened Riff and a far more complex and nuanced Bernardo and Anita. In Spieberg’s lavish love letter to the musicals of the past, Tony Kushner is allowed space to embrace the multicultural colours and textures of the story by reflecting on the forced relocation of migrant communities in New York through the late 1950s demolition and development of the city. Spielberg never attempts to outdo the original film’s choreography, music and action, creating a defiant period piece that often feels like it comes from a bygone age of lavish musicals. The exterior sets, dance routines and vibrant colours hark back to the glory days of the movie musical while bringing us a modern touch through exquisite cinematic sound, cultural competency and Spielberg’s trademark cinematic style. You almost expect the opening credits to announce ‘presented in cinemascope and technicolour.’

Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Ansel Elgort plays Tony, a young man and ex-Jet member who is just out of prison following a gang-related act of violence. Tony’s time away has left him with a disdain for violence and placed him at odds with the gang he once called home, The Jets, now led by the vibrant, energetic but complicated Riff, played by Mike Faist. As Tony tries to get his life back on track under the guidance of his landlady Valentina (Rita Moreno) Anita in the 1961 film, Riff has plans to entice Tony back to The Jets. Meanwhile, across the slowly disappearing block they call home, The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by the fiery Bernardo (David Alvarez), are fighting for their own cultural survival in a changing city. Bernado is in a loving but complicated relationship with Anita (Ariana DeBose), who attempts to protect her sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) from the gang warfare surrounding them. But, when Tony meets Maria, the sectarian violence between The Jets and The Sharks takes on a new intensity with devastating consequences.

COVID-19 may have stripped us of the majesty and power of the cinematic experience, but Spielberg reminds us of what we have been missing. West Side Story didn’t just have me shedding a solitary tear; it had me silently blubbing into my facemask due to its sheer beauty. Here Spielberg’s film is a love letter to Wise, Robbins, Sondheim and Bernstein and a celebration of the shared cinematic experience. West Side Story is one of the year’s best films, a masterpiece that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

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