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Film Review: West Side Story

Director:    Steven Spielberg

Cast:    Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Mike Faist, Iris Menas

Rating:    M

Running Time:    156

Australian Distributor:     Walt Disney Studios

 

Reimagining a property so beloved, so highly ingrained in popular culture, and the hearts of steadfast fans can feel like an impossible feat. But Steven Spielberg, arguably one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, has achieved just that.

The 1957 musical, itself based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” has been reconfigured and cinematised into a glorious, meaty, entrancing new version of “West Side Story”, a film that is like a feast for the senses. If you try hard enough, you can almost feel the sweat dripping off the dancers and smell the juicy, bedrock themes of love triumphing over hate and the destructiveness of xenophobia.

Spielberg keeps the things we want to see unchanged — the dancing, the music which moves the action and operates more as its own character than merely an accompaniment and the star-crossed chemistry between Maria and Tony that pops off the screen — but allows for a new generation of viewers to enjoy the story without the problematic bits of the original.

For one, the silver screen Maria portrayed by Natalie Wood — undoubtedly a wonderful actress — put on a forced Puerto Rican accent despite her own Russian ancestry. The members of the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks were predominantly played by non-Latinx actors, including George Chakiris, who starred as Maria’s brother and the leader of the Puerto Rican gang Bernardo. It is a tough watch through our current lens, sixty years after its release.   

Refreshingly, our new female leading lady, Rachel Zegler, not only has Columbian roots, but she’s a bonafide star on the rise. She nails the musical numbers with effortless pitch and endless charm and can act to boot, with an accent and a non-trivial amount of Spanish dialogue that comes across as authentic.

Accomplished actor Ansel Elgort complements Zegler as Tony, the former member of the white, territorial nemesis gang, the Jets, who patrol Manhattan’s West Side with self-righteous fervour. Elgort is serious and dry, an acting choice that amplifies the emotional resonance in the heavier final scenes. It works with lots of bravado and pearly white smiles, and with his soothing voice and smooth dance moves, it demonstrates his fine acting instincts and undeniable screen presence.   

Characters are fleshed out and given more depth, heightening the drama as tensions between the Jets and Sharks — the former now led by Tony’s best pal Riff (a phenomenal Mike Faist), the latter by Maria’s quick-tempered, prize-fighting brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) — come to a boiling point. Key numbers are staged with captivating choreography from Justin Peck, full of flair and flamboyance but still paying homage to the 1961 film, and every twist and turn is expertly captured by Janusz Kaminski’s dazzling cinematography.

Amongst the many musicals at the cinema in 2021, it’s Spielberg’s film that stands head and shoulders above the rest. If you’re going to roll the dice by remaking a bona fide classic, you’d better knock it out of the park, and with his version of West Side Story, Spielberg has achieved it adeptly.

 

 






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