Gemma Creagh looks at well-choreographed gang warfare in West Side Story.
Based on Arthur Laurents’ 1957 musical, rather than Robert Wise’s 1961 film, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story casts a modern lens over a beloved classic. Still as timely as ever in terms of themes, this Romeo and Juliet adaptation tackles anti-Latinx sentiment and socioeconomic inequality in the States – but to a familiar soundtrack and stunning spectacle.
Set in 1950s New York, the Upper West Side of Manhattan lies in ruins. The local population is being displaced as the city is redeveloped and gentrified around them. The Jets, a gang of working class, white supremacists headed up by Riff (Mike Faist), are angry. Engaging in light criminality, they bully and harass local Puerto Rican-community and business owners. That is until a number of Puerto Ricans youths, the Sharks, step in to defend their territory.
At a local dance, the Jets and the Sharks continue this feud via the medium of tough talking and dance, while two star crossed lovers meet for the first time behind the bleachers. Ex-Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) , the sister of Shark leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), feel an instant connection during their brief encounter. As tensions between the rival crews escalate, so does the budding relationship of this ill-matched pair. Bernardo and Riff organise a “rumble” in an old salt warehouse to settle things once and for all. However, Maria’s plans to stop them fighting go tragically wrong.
There have been some notable tweaks to appeal to a modern audience. If you’re planning a viewing, you might want to brush up on your Duolingo as much of the dialogue is in Spanish with no subtitles. Anybodys, played by Iris Menas is no longer a “Tomboy” as in previous versions but is acknowledged as transgender. A far cry from an era when white actors played “brownface” – as in the case of the last film’s Maria; Anita (Ariana DeBose) is now a strong, proud woman of colour and all the Puerto Rican characters are played by performers of Lantinx heritage. Already a success with the critics, it will be interesting to see how Gen Z enjoys this remake.
In many ways, the timing of this release is bittersweet as it comes just two weeks after the death of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, who penned the musical’s most poignant lyrics. If there’s one director who could competently tackle a remake of a sacred canon like West Side Story, it’s powerhouse Steven Spielberg. Bringing his distinct cinematic flair to a project steeped in rich drama and vintage glamour is the perfect palate cleanser after his last futuristic film Ready Player One.
The performances across the board are strong. For such a young cast they deliver emotional depth and dance moves all while belting out uptempo tunes or weighty ballads, an intense physical feat. It was unfortunate that Maria and Tony didn’t have the required chemistry to sell their affair. Maybe it’s Maria’s young appearance, or Tony’s bland Frat Boy vibes, but as a couple they are unrelatable and somewhat underwritten. While there’s a complex undercurrent to Riff that’s intriguing, and Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film) brings a lot of heart to the reimagined character of Valentina; ultimately it is DeBose who engages in highway robbery as Anita – stealing the show along with every scene she’s in.
From the heightened and colourful production design to Justin Peck’s bold, energetic choreography, this iteration of West Side Story is the perfect homage to the theatrics of the original, a true visual feast.
West Side Story is in cinemas on 10th December