Spielberg’s new instant classic

Ariana DeBose (centre) as Anita in the standout America sequence from Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Picture by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios

SCREEN: West Side Story
Reviewed in Durban at Suncoast CineCentre, Suncoast Casino
but on circuit countrywide

THE 1961 Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins film version of West Side Story, still the reigning king of Oscar-winning musicals with 10 golden statuettes, will always have a very special place in my heart. The sheer innovation of its look and the dynamism of Robbins’s legendary choreography, set to some of the most memorable of all music, alone ensure that.

But, that said, I am truly blown away by the $100milion remake by Steven Spielberg, whose fluid and inspired direction makes one hope, with thumbs tightly held, that he makes more movie musicals. The man is brilliant and his interpretation of this classic Romeo and Juliet variation, aided by a terrific cast and some interesting plot tweaks, has me favouring his film more than the original.

Spielberg’s movie tells a familiar story that is much more cinematic, his characters so much more meaty and real on a canvas so much wider and more credible. His film runs for 156 minutes but is so compelling, so joyous yet also so moving, that time just whizzes by.

The tale, of course, is of two rival gangs, Sharks and Jets, in a slum area of New York that is being demolished in the late 1950s. The gangs go to war over bigotry and to claim turf superiority, with some tragic results. This transpires after Puerto Rican dressmaker Maria, sister of gang member Bernardo, meets and shares an instant mutual love with Jets member, white boy Tony, at a neighbourhood dance.

One of my main quibbles with the original film remains the heavy, muddy makeup on the Puerto Ricans (including Rita Morena as Anita, even though she is Puerto Rican). The characters in Spielberg’s film are a lot more real and their dialogue generally a lot less cheesey.

Additionally, ill-fated lovers Tony and Maria, played by exciting teen newcomer Rachel Zegler and a charming, tall Ansel Algort, have not only more oomph and chemistry than the original movie’s Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, but also look more youthful and sing with their own, truly excellent, voices. The singing voices of both Wood and Beymer were dubbed.

The new movie also makes so much more of the streets and the vibrancy of the Puerto Rican community – the colourful America being a showstopper of note – and the choreography by Justin Peck, with some loving homage to the original, is quite wonderful.

The score and songs, of course – music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the incomparable, late Stephen Sondheim – remain a major drawcard and are every bit as magnificent as they were in the original film. There are some slight changes in order of songs in the new film, however, and one surprise twist in which a new character sings one of the classic tunes.

That new character is the wise and caring Valentina, widow of Doc, and in this film version has taken over the running of Doc’s store, which provides a safe meeting ground for both Jets and Sharks. She is played by the now-90-year-old Rita Morena, also an executive producer of the remake, who won an Oscar for her supporting role as Anita in the original film. She gives a moving performance as Valentina, and it would be so great to see her take another Oscar for a production so dear to her heart.

Speaking of Anita… Maria’s street-savvy friend and confidant, and the love of her gang member brother Bernardo, is played with such verve and passion by former So You Think You Can Dance contestant Ariana DeBose (the school teacher in TV’s campy Schmigadoon) that one simply cannot take one’s eyes off her. Being a great actress, dancer and singer, she is a constant scene-stealer.

Rachel Zegler is pretty as a picture as Maria and with that beautiful voice, just perfect in the part. She was chosen from some 30 000 hopefuls and word is Spielberg opted for Zegler, who is now 20 but was 18 during filming, after being impressed with her singing on YouTube. Watch next for this actress in the upcoming Shazam 2 and the live-action remake of Disney’s Snow White.

Ansel Algort, who makes for a laidback, intriguing Tony, was first seen on screen in a small role in the remake of the horror movie Carrie, and got good reviews for his teen cancer patient in The Fault in Our Stars.

Others of note among a fine ensemble cast are Mike Faist (as gang leader Riff), who originated the role of Connor Murphy in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen; Broadway veteran Brian d’Arcy James (as Officer Krupke, the cop who tries to prevent turf war); and a striking David Alvarez (as a macho Bernardo), who was one of the original boy stars of Billy Elliot on Broadway.

It is worth noting that the keen eye might even spot Dance Moms teen dance star Maddie Ziegler, in a small role as Jets member Velma.

The film’s satisfying, chunkier screenplay, incorporating more realistic language and occasional use of Spanish without subtitles, is by Tony Kushner, who is also an executive producer of the remake. He wrote Spielberg’s Munich in 2002 and Lincoln in 2012. Kudos, too, to Janusz Zygmunt Kamiński, for some terrific visuals. He is the Polish cinematographer who so impressed with his work on Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

West Side Story is a treasure of a film, certainly among Spielberg’s finest, and it comes as no surprise that it has already been named one of the top 10 films of 2021 by America’s National Board of review and the American Film Institute. Additionally, the movie has now been nominated for four Golden Globe Awards and 11 Critics’ Choice Awards. Oscar glory beckons.

Finally, I can only concur with Empire magazine reviewer, Helen O’Hara, who gave the film five stars, labelling it “heartfelt and heart-breaking”. She added: “…Spielberg has made an adaptation faithful to its roots but also, always, alive to the modern world”. Hear, hear!

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