BRIAN VINER's verdict on the movie version of West Side Story

Spielberg goes West… and what a Story! BRIAN VINER’s four-star verdict on the movie version of West Side Story

West Side Story 


Could it be? Yes it could. Something’s coming, something good. Happily, the late Stephen Sondheim’s masterly lyrics from West Side Story can be applied to Steven Spielberg’s new movie version, which arrives in cinemas next week.

Despite the apprehension of so many who consider the original 1961 film to be a sacred cinematic treasure – one that should never be re-made or ‘reinterpreted’ – it’s mostly wonderful.

It’s not quite flawless, however. As the swooning romantic lead Tony, Ansel Elgort has the prettiness of a young Marlon Brando but not the presence, and his singing voice is pleasant enough but under-powered.

Brando, coincidentally, wanted to play Tony in the original but, in his mid-30s, was deemed too old and actually the same applies to 27-year-old Elgort.

No such mistake was made with Rachel Zegler – the newcomer plucked out of a New Jersey high school to play the female lead, Maria. She’s charming and sings like an angel, which is more than can be said of the original screen Maria, Natalie Wood, whose songs were dubbed.

Brian Viner reviews West Side Story. Pictured, Ariana DeBose as Anita, foreground left, and David Alvarez as Bernardo

Comparisons between the two films are not just irresistible but unavoidable. Thankfully, though, nobody has tampered with the story, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1957, Tony and Maria fall hopelessly in love despite simmering tensions between the Sharks, the gang of Puerto Rican immigrants led by Maria’s hot-headed brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Jets, the white American gang of which Tony is a member, headed by his best friend Riff (Mike Faist).

But, when those tensions boil over into full-blown violence, their burgeoning love affair is halted by tragedy.

As well as the story and setting, Leonard Bernstein’s immortally wonderful compositions remain the same, with a few amended lyrics here and there.

Spielberg, with the help of screenwriter Tony Kushner, has pulled off something of a miracle by making his film both a conspicuous homage to the original and an ingeniously subtle updating of it.

So Gee, Officer Krupke – the song that was performed in 1961 with a lot of comedic goofing – is here more insolent and harder-edged. Spielberg is able to do what Robert Wise, his counterpart 60 years ago, could not.

All the issues that resonated then, resonate even louder today. But he can make the anger about racism more explicit and the story’s violence – even when interpreted through dance – more shocking. He also has more tools at his disposal, not to mention New York City itself. At the start of the film, the camera swoops and soars over an urban wasteland; entire West Side neighbourhoods have been bulldozed in the name of progress, and displacement of their communities is at the heart of the rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets.

As for the film’s showstopper – the great song America – in 1961 it was performed entirely on a Hollywood sound stage. This time it spills, magnificently choreographed, onto the city’s mean streets.

Ansel Elgort, as the swooning romantic lead Tony, and Rachel Zegler – the newcomer plucked out of a New Jersey high school to play the female lead, Maria

I won’t say it knocks the original out of the park. Nothing could. But even the purists, for whom a new West Side Story feels faintly blasphemous, will have to agree that it’s thrillingly done. They should also note that a new character has been created; an elderly woman called Valentina who owns the drug store where Tony lodges in the basement.

YET they shouldn’t mind because she is played – beautifully and entirely defying her almost 90 years – by Rita Moreno, who as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita won an Academy Award first time round as Best Supporting Actress.

Anita this time is played by Ariana DeBose who’s terrific. But I fancy that Moreno might upstage her when the award nominations flood in for this film, as they surely will. It will be no more than Spielberg deserves.

He has described his ‘reimagining’ of a masterpiece as the most daunting challenge of his career.

If so, he has risen to it triumphantly. And the timing of the release – following a year-long pandemic-enforced postponement – is serendipitous.

For one thing, it comes six decades almost to the day since the 1961 picture came out. For another, it arrives just two weeks after the death of the great Stephen Sondheim, for whom it is the perfect epitaph.

  • West Side Story opens in UK cinemas next Friday 

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