West Side Story (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir: Steven Spielberg, US, 2021, 156 mins.

Cast: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Rita Moreno, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, Ariana DeBose

Review by Carlie Newman

With pulsating music, exciting dancing and a beautiful leading lady, the new West Side Story bursts on to our cinema screens. As long as you accept this as a new version of the1957 stage musical and not a re-make of the iconic 1961 film, you will be able to sit back and enjoy it. And most enjoyable it is to!

Director Steven Spielberg has put his own take on to the story. Don’t worry the clicks of the fingers are still there, the memorable music remains as do the songs, but it is now 2021 and Spielberg shows us the world of the late 50s through modern eyes.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the film is now set in New York City. There is rivalry between the Sharks – A Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo (a fiercely angry David Alvarez) – and the Jets – a gang of young white men with the charismatic leader Riff (Mike Faist,a young toughie).

Maria (beautiful Rachel Zegler), Barnardo’s sister meets Tony (Ansel Elgort), one of the Jets gang at a dance. They fall instantly in love with one another, and he romances her. Her friend Anita (the vivacious Ariana Debose), who is Barnardo’s girlfriend warns Maria against falling for an enemy and Tony’s friends are absolutely against his romance with a Puerto Rican girl.

Tony, backed by Maria, tries desperately to prevent a planned rumble between the two gangs but each side is determined to fight. This leads to disaster for the young men in both gangs and for Tony and Maria.

Lovely though Natalie Woods was in the part of Maria., she was not of the right ethnicity and her voice was dubbed. Rachel Ziegler looks exactly right and has a very sweet voice. One of the main advantages of this version is that all the casting has been done with the ethnicity of the characters to the forefront. So, the Sharks are all of Puerto Rican, or nearby, descent. Spielberg uses his actors appropriately. He allows them to talk in Spanish without any subtitles, but it is always clear to the audience what it is they are saying even though many of us know no Spanish.

Spielberg has a long history of filmmaking, and the choice of actors is spot on. While Elgort’s Tony is not a very dramatic characterisation, he manages to put across Tony’s very real desire to keep away from violence. Ziegler looks beautiful and comes across as sweet and very much in love. I loved the Anita of DeBose – she is able to dance, sing and act superbly. Delightful to see 89-year-old (at time of filming) Rita Moreno (Anita in the earlier film) as Valentina. She sings Somewhere very movingly.

The young lads, especially the leaders of each gang, Mike Faist as Riff and David Alvarez as Bernardo, are excellent. The diverse cast includes a trans-actor, Iris Meanas as Anybodys and once you see the actor, they are exactly right in the part and give new meaning to the role. Lt Shrank (Corey Stoll) is suitably casual as he expounds very obvious racist views.

With a screenplay by Tony Kushner, original music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim, who has recently died, the musical is absolutely riveting. Although long, the wonderful cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and lively choreography make you wish it was even longer! The film is a fantastically successful effort by Spielberg.