December 6, 2021

CINEMA | Steven Spielberg Rumbles – Another 'West Side Story'

"We can't pretend what we do doesn't cause trouble."
Ariana DeBose David Alvarez Steven Spielberg | West Side Story
20th Century Studios
Renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg has finally made his much-promised first musical adaptation. This reimagined version of Jerome Robbins' seminal 1957 Broadway song and dance feature with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is a rousing restaging of a classic (after the 1961 original). This energetic remake of West Side Story tweaks and updates certain elements including an all-Latinx cast portraying the lively Puerto Rican characters.

Starring a serviceable but wooden Ansel Elgort, who was accused of sexual assault last year, and wide-eyed newcomer Rachel Zegler (a standout) as our new Tony and Maria, their tragic romantic drama—while obviously rushed and heightened as inspired by Romeo and Juliet—is still easy to get lost in, but it's the supporting players who shine.

A luminous Ariana DeBose (as an Afro-Latina Anita), magnetic David Alvarez (as a boxer Bernardo bringing his jacked-up Billy Elliot energy), charismatic Mike Faist (as Riff), and legendary Rita Moreno (the original Anita plays a reconceived version of the Doc character, Valentina) co-star and anchor the phenomenal young cast full of such vibrant and dynamic performances.

David Alvarez Steven Spielberg | West Side Story

Elgort as the weak link is easy to look past with his pretty boy meets puppy love act setting off gang warfare in the Upper West Side of New York between bitter rival street gangs over race and territory. It's hard not see with contemporary eyes how the Jets are angry, desperate young men without jobs, drawn to white supremacy, being gentrified out of their neighbourhood, and threatened by the prosperity of hardworking immigrants as the Sharks come off as much more broadly sympathetic.

Scripted by Angels in America playwright and frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner, the timeless musical remains the same yet feels more about today than ever with its subtle changes, not so much to reflect contemporary times, but show us how the past really was. Much of the staging and narrative elements are streamlined just as the choreography of such iconic numbers feel fresh and absolutely spectacular in cinematic presentation including making the gang violence more brutal-looking visually.

Spielberg's lavishly faithful West Side Story remake offers many little improvements from the 1961 classic in so many ways from a stronger ensemble, a restaging of its original choreography (done by Justin Peck), and a more culturally appropriate cast. It's a breathtaking realization of music and melodrama that brings new things to such old standards while letting us fondly remember its timelessness. It remains magical and pure cinema.


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