Films about division are as old as Hollywood, and stories about forbidden love are like the drops of spring rain threatening a future of potential blue skies. West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s retelling of the classic 1957 stage musical (following a much loved 1961 movie version), pits two rival gangs against each other in the midst of civil unrest and doomed attraction.
For those that haven’t seen any format of West Side Story before (which included myself) the story is set in a slum area of Manhattan, New York, circa 1957.
The neighbourhood is due to be torn down for luxury apartment blocks, yet the Puerto Rican ‘Sharks’ and the white ‘Jets’ fight for control of what is left as the dust rains down over them.
Yet their battles are complicated when past convicted Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver) falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler, debuting in this movie) much to the anger of her brother and Shark leader, Bernardo (David Alvarez).
It is perhaps a telling indictment of the current movie market that there appears to be a hunger for big colourful musicals. La La Land may be 6 years old now, but the likes of Hamilton and In The Heights have kept the fire for song and dance well and truly stoked.
West Side Story already had a head start due to being such a famous and beloved property. I can’t make any comment as to comparison with the stage show or earlier film, but I can say that Spielberg has produced something of undoubted beauty here.
156 minutes can test the resolve of any movie watcher, yet Spielberg’s skill for visual spectacle means that I barely registered the running time. And I don’t mean ‘visual spectacle’ in a Fast and Furious way where computer servers work overtime to render increasingly ridiculous car jumps.
Is West Side Story Worth Watching?
Colourful costumes flash and pirouette as gloriously choreographed and in camera dance routines bloom like irrepressible spring flowers. Whether taking in a sweeping number or setting up beautifully framed moments, West Side Story is never less than a delight to watch.
Watch, yes. Listen to? Well, that depends on your enjoyment threshold of musicals that arguably treat having a central melody or free flowing lyrics as a slinky spring to bend uncomfortably around.
Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s songs are treated with all due reverence but this is the point in my review where I must admit that musicals tend to bemuse me.
Whether or not I enjoyed them, it is clear that every possible musical flourish and lyrical moment is given the utmost sheen so fans of the songs should have plenty to be joyful about.
As is frequently the case with doomed love stories, the least interesting part about West Side Story is the doomed love story. Elgort and Zegler perform their plot lynchpin roles with skill, both singing and dancing through their pure Hollywood-magic numbers with total confidence.
Yet it is in the darker tone in which West Side Story presents its best elements. The inevitable nature of escalating violence amid poisoned dedication to hatred of the ‘other’ is laid bare as events become predictably worse for everyone, whether honourably intentioned or not.
Standout performances include both Mike Faist as Riff and Ariana DeBose as Anita. Faist, as he did in Panic has the amazing ability to convey so many internal battles behind the eyes.
As founding member of the Jets (along with Tony) he has little to lose and his pride to maintain, angered that Tony is reluctant to return to gang life. DeBose’s Anita is a stupendous display of presence. Her self-assured confidence in the face of Bernardo’s bravado and simmering rage upon discovering Maria’s betrayal is a masterclass.
West Side Story is one of those movies that skilfully refines each part and yet, through a carefully crafted magic, manages to surpass each single element to become a wonderous whole.
If musicals aren’t your thing then it won’t miraculously convert you to their weird world, but you will have a fantastic time telling yourself that as it plays.
Words by Mike Record