An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.
Steven Spielberg isn’t a director particularly known for remakes (this is his first, although granted he has a few sequels under his belt), so his decision to remake ‘West Side Story’ certainly piqued my interest. Whether you’ve seen the 1961 movie or not, you will likely be broadly familiar with the film and story, it being one of the classic musicals from the golden age of Hollywood, adapted from a stage production with theatre royalty such as Leonard Bernstein and the recently deceased Stephen Sondheim behind the music and the lyrics. This update retains the time period from the original movie, but there are some key changes such as an increase in the usage of Spanish (with no subtitles) and a key mentor role being gender swapped – ostensibly to give Rita Moreno (Anita in the 1961 movie) a key role.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it centres on a feud between two rival street gangs and a love affair that begins between the two groups – if it wasn’t clear before, the ‘Romeo & Juliet’ influence should be very apparent based on that outline! The gangs are the Jets, a mostly white gang, and the Sharks, mostly immigrants from Puerto Rico, and they both inhabit a rundown neighbourhood in New York City that has been earmarked for development. The lovers at the centre of the movie are Tony (Ansel Elgort), a jet who was recently released from prison and is trying to keep his nose clean, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Bernardo, the ‘leading’ shark. The movie plays out the increasing tensions between the gangs alongside the growing romance between Maria and Tony, and suffice to say, the romance doesn’t exactly simmer the gang tensions.
Somehow I’ve not seen the 1961 movie so I went into this cold, and safe to say I have some thoughts. First things first, I did really like the film – it’s got great songs, it’s well directed and choreographed, and Leonard Bernstein’s jaunty score (reworked here) is terrific and really grabbed me. However, I did have one significant issue and that is with the central romance which I really struggled to buy. I think it’s some parts due to Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, who are both fine, but not exactly zinging with chemistry, but more parts due to how quick they move from a first dance to being madly in love. I could have done with more build up here especially as it is crucial to how the story ultimately plays out. The sharks are well cast and I was actually more interested in Bernardo (David Alvarez) and Anita (Ariana DeBose) than I was in Tony and Maria – it helped that the sharks actually looked physically imposing, whereas the jets looked like a bunch of ballet dancers (which they probably were!).
Having became a latent musical fan, it was fun seeing a couple of numbers that have clearly influenced other musicals, such as ‘Tonight’, (‘Les Miserables’ did it better with ‘One Day More’!) and ‘A Boy Like That’ (also ‘Les Mis’, ‘The Confrontation’), and I had a really good time watching this. Despite being over 2 and a half hours long it didn’t drag and it has an infectious energy, but as I said before, the central romance is key and I did think it could have been better written, developed and possibly acted. All the same, Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story‘ mostly succeeds and I was very entertained!
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James and Corey Stoll