If you thought Jerome Robbins’ 1961 musical couldn’t be improved, you’d be wrong and wrong again: Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a triumph. Projecting modern-day production values onto a set infused with 50s sensibilities, it’s a wonderful homage to the original and keeps the pace with Gershwin’s kinetic score full of complex polyrhythms and unusual harmonies.
Although it was initially pitched for a 2020 release, the film has suffered numerous setbacks. Yet the film’s late release is actually a timely commemoration of lyricist Steven Sondheim’s legacy after his passing at the end of November. Initial reactions may have insisted that the new version just won’t eclipse the 60s classic, but I really do think this is as satisfying a tribute as any director could dream up. Perhaps it’ll depend on your relationship with the original, but I felt that anyone who hasn’t seen it in advance will find a lovingly made film with clear affection for its source.
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West Side Story
Director: Steven Spielberg
Release date: December 10, 2021
To address the first and most pressing question: why Spielberg? Probably the most controversial aspect of the film is that the paragon of action directors and founder of the summer blockbuster is the one to helm it. Despite a hugely successful and genre-defining career, he’s not the obvious choice to revitalise the musical by any means, without a single musical credit to his name.
Yet the 74-year-old describes the project as a ‘challenge’ that he’d wanted to take on since first seeing the film as a child and further explains that the sense of disconnect between the characters is just as relevant today as it was in the 1950s. The rest, it seems, is down to his passion for the material and his inability to stay away from even the most daunting of remakes. Luckily for him, it pays off.
The story of rival gangs in 1960s New York, the Sharks and the Jets, isn’t just a story about rebels without a cause: it’s a story about immigrant displacement, racism, generational feuds, and an indictment of the rapid gentrification that pushes young men to the fringes and changes the very landscape they live in. You can mark just how prescient this classic is in that many of these themes still stand from the original.
The social commentary feels as up-to-date as if it was written today: in the razor-sharp, poignantly observed and always humorous song “Gee Officer Krupke“ the delinquent Jets protest that “I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!” Who’s really to blame: these misguided youths or the society that offers them so little aspiration? We could talk all day about the implications of this song and admire Sondheim’s pertinent lyrics, but suffice to say that it feels truly relevant.
While there have been a few adjustments – the song “Cool” notably happening before the rumble, and “I Feel Pretty” playing nearer the end – the structural changes make this adaptation so memorable. Spielberg has made the conscious decision to keep Spanish dialogue in the script without subtitles, indicating that it’s just as much a part of America as English. This simple decision has big impacts on the way we view the film: suddenly, we’re not relying on subtitles to do all the work for us, but we strive to understand the Spanish dialogue between Puerto Rican characters and that goes a long way in making us feel very much immersed in this changing America.
The ideology is of course explored in the song “America”, with two people battling over their different views of assimilation: is it better to live in a liberal country where you’re hated, or a traditionalist country where you’re welcome? Each makes such important observations that you hardly know where you stand on the American dream by the end. Even this song has a rich history and the writers updated the lyrics between the release of the 1957 stage musical and the 1961 film adaptation. It’s a song that serves as the crux of the whole film and shows that even a musical can be political.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have also employed few other differences to make it more palatable and representative for a modern audience. They’ve tactfully removed the brownface makeup that marred the original, and cast an authentic cast with people from Puerto Rico who would bring more of a sense of reality to the narrative.
And notably, the character of drugstore owner Doc, Tony’s mentor, is reimagined as a female character: Doc’s widow, played by Rita Moreno, West Side Story’s original Anita. As a Puerto Rican who married a gringo, she has a foot in both worlds and casts a wise and world-weary eye over the youths battling for territory. This poignant character even has the honour of singing “Somewhere,” an honour usually given to Tony and Maria.
The most controversial scene of the whole musical is brought up to date with more of a feminist presence. When Anita (Ariana deBose) delivers a message to Tony, she’s assaulted by the Jets. In this version, the boys’ girlfriends protest their scene and Doc’s wife intervenes, confronting them outright and passing judgment on them for dishonoring themselves. It’s this grotesque incident that spirals out of control, setting events in motion that lead to the ultimate tragedy, but it’s also this incident that causes Anita to lose faith in the American dream and causes her to reject her new country, creating an irreversible rift between the groups.
Like any true tragedy, the real fault is never really a fault at all. For Maria, she isn’t content with a life with gentle but uninspiring Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) – she has to rebel against her brother’s (David Alvarez) wishes and seek out Tony (Ansel Elgort). Tony’s fault is believing he can change and escape the pervasive gang culture. For the Jets and Sharks, the fault is continuing the violent patterns of those that came before them and passing this onto others until the tragedy becomes violent and irreversible.
Although this film isn’t a shot-for-shot remake, it’s very much in the spirit of the original. Filmed in widescreen, we have glorious vistas of Manhattan. The backdrops of dirty, foggy, industrial New York alleyways and streets (like Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes) can’t stop the vibrancy of the Puerto Ricans’ colourful clothing really making the scenes pop and bringing the streets to life. The choreography is just stunning: while the acting never feels forced, you’d never doubt that months of training and discipline went into perfecting the musical numbers. It’s the actors’ pure radiance as they perform just makes the film sparkle.
To me, this remake felt just as charming as the original: the songs make it feel so alive, but it’s really the innocence and grace that saint-like Zegler and cherubic Elgort bring to the roles of Maria and Tony that perfect it. They’ve certainly done Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood proud.
You’d hardly believe this is Zegler’s first feature-length film credit. She may have become known for her viral audition clip but she’s set to become a household name after securing the most coveted role in modern musicals. After all, she beat 30,000 other applicants to the role: you don’t need these stats to take it from me that she has something special. You’ll see more of her in Disney’s upcoming Snow White, due for a 2023 release, so she’s one to watch.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen West Side Story, I cried multiple times: Spielberg’s adaptation delivers. It brings a fresh perspective on a well-loved classic and I couldn’t help but love such a charming remake. After all, its characters’ lives feel so real and their ethnic backgrounds play such an important part in their lives. This gorgeous, maximalist production is everything you want it to be, remaining faithful to the great Gershwin’s music and Sondheim’s iconic libretto.