by Chris Connor
West Side Story is among the most recognisable Musicals in Cinema history; it was the highest-grossing film of 1961 and earned 10 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno’s portrayal of Anita. In his first musical outing, Steven Spielberg has remade the classic, but is it any good?
The bulk of the original story remains intact, transposing many of the themes of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a feud between Puerto Rican’s and Americans in New York’s West Side. Here Ansel Elgort’s Tony and Rachel Zegler’s Maria have a short-lived forbidden romance from across the racial divide against the backdrop of gangland feuds.
Zegler here making her film debut is remarkable as Maria, stepping into the shoes of Natalie Wood showing a truly captivating screen presence and offering a youthful innocence that is essential for the part of Maria. As in the original film the part of Anita is a highlight with Ariana De Bose who had previously appeared in Hamilton proving a fine replacement for Moreno. De Bose’s maturity works well in contrast to the more childlike Maria. Having worked previously in musical theatre, Mike Faist as Riff, the leader of the Jets, has earned rave reviews and it is no wonder; he gives a compelling and energetic performance.
Set pieces in Spielberg films are always a treat and such is the case here, the musical numbers are wonderfully choreographed and prove captivating viewing with the cast fully committed. This is largely true to the style and pacing of the original film but Spielberg adds touches of his own though-out, the dance where Tony and Maria first meet is a particular high point, but there are consistent moments of wonder and technical wizardry to be found across the film’s many musical numbers.
Of course, musical numbers in films like The Temple Of Doom proved Spielberg’s love of the genre and ability to helm such sequences. West Side Story is a joyous celebration: a colourful, vibrant and exhilarating addition to the canon of film musicals.
One of the successes of Spielberg’s rendition is the more ensemble feel to the film with many supporting characters given moments to shine. In an extended cameo, Rita Moreno herself is a delight on screen as Valentina who supports Tony and provides him with a place to work. There is rarely a weak link among them. This feels more like the story of the Jets and Sharks as a whole rather than just a tale of Tony and Maria, fleshing out these streets of Manhattan more than in the original tale.
If perhaps this film isn’t as essential as its predecessor, it works hard to feel like its own entity while honouring the legacy of the original film and stage show. The cinematography and choreography make this a visual treat and one that explodes with colour on the big screen.
Rachel Zegler, Ariana De Bose and Rita Moreno are particular standouts and all seem in the mix for the upcoming awards season. This is one of Steven Spielberg’s strongest efforts in recent years and shows that he still has plenty to say and is still capable of delivering big-screen entertainment of the highest level.
West Side Story is out in cinemas 10th December!