Having been delayed by a year due to Covid-19, this particular reviewer was itching to watch Steven Spielberg’s modern take on a classic. That classic? None other than West Side Story: the tale of finger-clicking, pirouetting gangsters of 1950’s New York, who parade through the streets in a permanent state of cultural warfare.
Spielberg, helped by a revamped Tony Kushner screenplay, updates the original 1961 film and creates something truly stunning. This, in part, is inevitable given the technological advancements that have taken place over the past half century, though experimental camerawork and mise-en-scène thrusts the audience into a stark, enthralling, and adequately tragic world (it is, after all, based off of Romeo and Juliet).
Some would argue that we don’t need a remake of such a successful and time-tested cultural product, though one of the many positive changes was more authenticity in the casting of Latinas.
But this isn’t the only change. Without giving too much away lyrics are changed to fit modern sensibilities, new characters are introduced, and songs such as ‘Cool’ and ‘Somewhere’ are reworked. Whilst the purist in me was uneasy at first, these updates are done sensitively to bolster the overall tragic effect.
Here, rather than the more theatrical song and dance seen in the original, is a more low-key, delicate and often conversational approach, which works to bolster the vulnerability of all characters from both camps.
Nothing here is done gratuitously. Where musicals are sometimes accused of their artifice and unrealistic nature, characters break into song seamlessly as powerful close ups heighten our emotional engagement with their plights.
And when they do so there’s plenty of talent on display, with stellar performances across the board. Mike Faist delivers a powerfully sensitive portrayal of Riff, the Jets ringleader, whilst David Alvarez’s hyper-masculine Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, provides something truly visceral.
The star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, were equally evocative, with Rachel Zegler making her mark with a scintillating film debut.
But it is Spielberg’s artistic direction that commands intrigue; creating a dreamlike otherworldliness to accentuate the extremities of emotion that throb beneath the surface of a disorientating historical context.
Indeed, he does well to make the audience more aware of the surrounding socio-political climate than the original, and captures the genuine tensions that emerged from immigration into New York at the time.
He tenderly portrays individuals who are trapped by their circumstance, morality, and loyalties. We sit longing for these pathos-inducing lost souls to abandon their reckless approach to life, though are helpless as the narrative unwinds to its tragic end.
The revamp of West Side Story has had its critics, though the biggest compliment I can give is that a running time of 156 minutes passes by effortlessly.
Spielberg does remarkably well to launch a classic into modernity through thrillingly expressionistic techniques, and so I recommend that you watch this authentically tear-jerking spectacle.