West Side Story is showing now in cinemas nationwide.
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? A common and sensible question considering how poor, many classic film remakes have been over the years. But this was Spielberg, so what could go wrong? The answer to this was plenty; after all, the 1961 version of West Side Story carried a place in many hearts as one of the best movie musicals ever made and an untouchable cinematic gem.
Thankfully, after a long wait due to COVID, Spielberg’s West Side Story is a beautiful, magnificent, lavish production that is as close to cinematic perfection as you can get. Here Spielberg pays homage to the original while delicately re-drawing some of the 1961 film’s dated themes. Speilberg’s West Side Story is both youthful and vibrant, with a more natural Maria and Tony, a Riff with more depth and added screentime for Bernardo and Anita.
In Speilberg’s lavish love letter to the MGM Musicals of the past screenwriter, Tony Kushner is allowed space to embrace the multicultural colours and textures of the story. Here Kushner and Spielberg reflect upon the forced relocation of migrant communities in New York through the late 1950s demolition and development of the city – a trait seen in many cities worldwide during this time. At the same time, they embrace diversity from the Spanish dialogue to a reinterpretation of Anybody’s character that is inspired.
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Spielberg never attempts to outdo the original film’s choreography, music and action, resulting in a defiant period piece that feels like it was made in 1961. Here the exterior sets, ensemble dance routines and vibrant colours are unashamedly theatrical and hark back to the glory days of the movie musical. You almost expect the opening credits to announce ‘presented in cinemascope and technicolour.’ Yet, this is far from being a paint-by-numbers remake and is uniquely Spielberg in both style, sound and vision.
Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Ansel Elgort plays Tony, in his best role since Baby Driver, a young man and ex-Jet member who is just out of prison following a gang-related act of violence. Tony’s new disdain for violence and warfare places him at odds with the gang he once called home, The Jets, now led by the complicated and isolated Riff, played by the electric and enigmatic Mike Faist. As Tony tries to get his life back on track under the guidance of his landlady Valentina (Rita Moreno), who played Anita in the original 1961 version, Riff has other plans as he attempts to entice Tony back to The Jets.
Mike Faist as Riff and Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Meanwhile, across the slowly disappearing block, they call home, The Sharks are a Puerto Rican gang led by the fiery Bernardo (David Alvarez). Bernado is in a loving but complicated relationship with Anita (the brilliant Ariana DeBose). Anita protects his sister Maria, played by the stunning 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.
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As a critic, I watch a lot of movies, and few have me shedding a tear just fifteen minutes into their runtime due to the cinematic power they carry. But Spielberg’s 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. Spielberg’s film is a love letter to Wise, Robbins, Sondheim and Bernstein and a celebration of cinema.
Is West Side Story one of the best films of the year? Yes. Is West Side Story a masterpiece that reminds us of the sheer power cinema can wield? Undoubtedly. Spielberg’s film reminds us of the artistry, beauty and emotional power of the big screen, and maybe more than any other film of 2021, it reminds us why cinema must be protected as the home of the movie, whether big or small.