CINEMA REVIEW: WEST SIDE STORY (2021)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by: Tony Kushner
Based on: West Side Story by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler etc.
Cinematography: Janusz Kamiński
Choreography: Justin Peck
Music by: Leonard Bernstein
*INEVITABLE SPOILERS WITH THIS STORY*
Well, if you removed all the songs and added more dialogue to West Side Story (2021), then I guarantee it would make an amazing stage play. Oh, it has already. I thought it felt extremely familiar. Silly jokes aside, one often hears the decrying of originality in Hollywood cinema. Sequels, prequels, remakes, adaptations and reboots are plentiful as big business. Known quantities are a better bet to executives than original never-heard-of speculative screenplays. And not everyone is averse to re-doing fully developed properties. Thus, one of the most talented filmmakers of a generation, Steven Spielberg, has delivered a stunning remake of a film adaptation of a stage musical that was developed from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
You know the story. If you don’t, stop reading. Young star-crossed lovers fall in love against their families wishes. Their romance explodes into unbridled passion as war escalates between the two rival factions. As the lovers attempt to find a way to be together the conflict brings about eventual tragedy. Shakespeare was a genius and knew how to structure and spin a yarn. No surprise his works have been adapted infinitely to much success. One of the greatest was the musical West Side Story (1961). Exchanging Verona for New York and pitting the Puerto Rican Sharks against the local firm, the Jets, the play and film contain some of the most incredible numbers ever sang and danced to. The original play won awards and broke box-office records. The film West Side Story (1961) deservedly won many Oscars. It is considered almost a perfect musical. How could it be improved?
West Side Story (2021) cannot possibly be classed as better than the original because Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurent, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, plus their incredible team, had already done all of the challenging work crafting the production. But with this new version Steven Spielberg has once again proved he is one of the great genre directors. Assembling an ultra-talented team including Josh Peck as choreographer, Tony Kushner as screenwriter, Janusz Kaminski as cinematographer and an effervescently wonderful cast.
Everything about the film screams colour, energy and movement. The dancing and editing and swinging beats take you on a breathless journey through the romance and street war. Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria’s (Rachel Zegler) love story is bounced effortlessly between the expertly devised gang battles. Moreover, West Side Story (2021) keeps all the memorably catchy songs such as: Maria, Tonight, America, Cool, and Somewhere, capturing the heart and imagination in equal measure. If there is a better directed, choreographed and edited set-piece all year in the Gee, Officer Krupke number then I haven’t seen it.
The cast are uniformly excellent with Ansel Elgort, while lacking slightly in the vocal department, more than making up for it with his magnetic screen presence. Rachel Zegler is charming if bland as Maria, but Ariana DeBose absolutely steals the scenes with her all-round performance as fiery Anita. The cast all deliver Tony Kushner’s excellent dialogue and the iconic songs with aplomb. Lastly, West Side Story (2021) is an absolute tour-de-force as cinematic entertainment. However, there is a sense that it is a missed opportunity for Steven Spielberg and his team to perhaps update the themes for the modern day. Kushner’s script hints at some analysis of racism that ultimately only scratches the surface. Spielberg is satisfied emulating a classic adaptation of a classic play, remaining trapped in a shiny post-modern time-warp full to the brim with powerful nostalgia.