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 West Side Story, many asked why? This is, of course, a common question when discussing remakes, mainly due to how poor many remakes of classic films have been over the years. But, West Side Story 2021 would finally see Steven Spielberg embrace the musical, so what could go wrong? The answer to this was plenty; after all, the 1961 version of West Side Story carries a place in many hearts as one of the best movie musicals ever made. The film’s position as a cinematic landmark all but protecting it from any interference over the years. Here Sondheim’s stunning songs and Bernstein’s luscious orchestral score only further elevated its place as an untouchable slice of cinematic history.
Now, after what feels like an extraordinarily long wait, Spielberg’s West Side Story has finally arrived, but does it work? The answer to this question is simple, YES! Spielberg’s West Side Story is a beautiful, magnificent, lavish and emotional slice of cinematic perfection. It’s a homage to the original while delicately re-drawing some of the 1961 films now dated themes. But that’s not all; Speilberg’s West Side Story places a youthful and vibrant energy centre stage. Here Maria and Tony feel more natural, Riff has added depth and Bernardo and Anita get the screentime they deserve. In Speilberg’s gentle but lavish new adaptation, screenwriter Tony Kushner gently updates the book by Arthur Laurents by fully embracing the multicultural colours of his story.
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Meanwhile, Kushner and Spielberg also reflect 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. However, in its choreography, music and action Spielberg never attempts to outdo the original, despite making tweaks to the running order and dance routines, just as he never attempts to update the historical location and flavour. This results in a defiant period piece that feels like it was made in 1961, its exterior sets, ensemble dance routines and vibrant colour unashamedly theatrical. Here you almost expect the opening credits to announce ‘presented in cinemascope and technicolour’. Yet, this is not a paint by numbers remake; it is uniquely Speilberg in both style, sound and vision, in turn, bringing West Side Story to a broader and younger audience.
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. Here Elgort’s performance carries a youthful Brando-esque intensity in his best role since Baby Driver. 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 Mike Faist in a truly electric performance of sheer power and beauty. Tony currently lives in Doc’s drugstore under the guidance of his landlady Valentina (Rita Moreno), who played Anita in the original 1961 version.
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 are led by the fiery Bernardo (David Alvarez). A man who has a loving but complicated relationship with Anita (the brilliant Ariana DeBose) while protecting his sister Maria, played by Rachel Zegler in a stunning debut performance. But, when Tony meets Maria, the sectarian violence between The Jet’s and The Shark’s takes on a new intensity with devastating consequences.
As a critic, it’s fair to say that I watch a hell of a lot of movies; however, few have me shedding a tear just fifteen minutes into their runtime due to the sheer cinematic power they carry. 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 beauty. Not only is Spielberg’s film a love letter to Wise, Robbins, Sondheim and Bernstein, but it is also a demonstration of Spielberg’s enduring ability to bring us legendary cinematic stories that transcend time.
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 all 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 movies big and small.