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West Side Story

  • Film
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

How do you outdo a classic? Steven Spielberg’s live-wire new version of the timeless musical pulls it off in style

If, like me, you tend to think West Side Story is just a lot of blokes in vests climbing over fences, interrupted by the odd song about rumbles, Steven Spielberg would like a word, daddy-o. His breathtaking, muscular and terrifically cast new version circles back to the original Broadway musical in its smart structural tweaks, nodding respectfully to the 1961 movie by recasting Rita Moreno, while supercharging an age-old story with new urgency. How do you outdo a film that won ten Oscars? Here’s how. 

There’s a substrata of genius-level artists at work here: from Spielberg himself, who delivers his best film in nearly 20 years, to the late, great Stephen Sondheim (lyricist), Jerome Robbins (choreographer), Leonard Bernstein (composer) and William Shakespeare (the ideas guy) – and you can really feel it.

The songs are still great, Bernstein’s brassy score is the sound of New York in flux, and the story remains sturdy and deceptively simple.

As is traditional, two gangs – the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – and their pair of star-crossed lovers, Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler), scrap, dance, romance, and eventually melt down altogether across a rumble-strewn corner of the Big Apple. The respective gang leaders, Riff and Bernardo (Mike Faist and David Alvarez, both terrific), cajole their crews towards a dust-up that will decide ownership of the turf once and for all. It will, of course, end in tears.

There’s a substrata of genius-level artists at work here and you can feel it

But Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (a Pulitzer prize winner for Angels in America) untap fierce new resonance in the story’s treatment of immigration, race, gender, masculinity and gentrification. An early encounter with the neighbourhood’s bigoted detective, Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll), a kind of racist Officer Dibble, sets the tone: the hoodrat Jets are basically ethnically cleansing the Puerto Rican barrios, and the cops have their backs.

It echoes throughout, in particular during a staging of centrepiece migrant anthem ‘America’, blisteringly staged by choreographer Justin Peck, that doesn’t bother to hide its rage amid the hypnotic swirl of flowing skirts.

Other characters are given new dimensions here, including the spurned and vengeful Chino and most significantly, wannabe Jet Anybodys, played by non-binary actor Iris Menas. A moving moment of acceptance into the gang is played to perfection.

So what are the flaws? Well, as always with a source story in which Tybalt is far more badass than Romeo, the lovie-dovie central couple feel underpowered compared with the live wires around them. For all the latters’ charms, Anita and Bernardo are more interesting characters than the thinly-sketched Tony and Maria, and you’d be forgiven for wanting to spend more time with them. You need a pretty high tolerance for finger-snapping, too.

Beyond that, everything sings. There’s a touch of diet Brando about Elgort’s reformed bad boy-turned-lovebird, but Zegler brings a lovely brand of innocence and conviction to Maria. And don’t be surprised to see Moreno (or for that matter Spielberg) winning another Oscar. Just another nine more needed...

In UK and US cinemas Dec 10. In Australia Dec 26, and Hong Kong and Singapore Jan 6.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Steven Spielberg
  • Screenwriter:Tony Kushner
  • Cast:
    • Ansel Elgort
    • Rita Moreno
    • Ariana DeBose
    • Rachel Zegler
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