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West Side Story film review


Directed by: #StevenSpielberg

Written by: #TonyKushner and #ArthurLaurents

Film review by: Brian Penn

West Side Story (2021)

The headline writers screamed with a heady mixture of excitement and relief; the long awaited Spielberg remake of West Side Story has finally arrived. It seems like a match made in heaven as one of the greatest directors in film history tackles the coolest musical in the universe. Some might say that a classic should never be touched, but Spielberg has largely pulled it off with a remake that enhances the original. Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet has never felt more romantic as the star crossed lovers are caught between warring families.

The story relocates to New York in the late 50s and the warring families are represented by rival street gangs. The Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) have begun a turf war with the Sharks; comprised of Puerto Rican immigrants they simply look for peaceful co-existence. The Sharks’ alpha male Bernardo (David Alvarez) contemplates his next move while sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) falls for reformed ex-Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort). Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana De Bose) is tired of the violence and longs to live an American life. But Maria and Tony are the unwitting pawns in a war that is about to turn ugly.

Remakes naturally invite comparison and this film is up against a mighty beast. The original released in 1961 won 10 Oscars including best picture and best director. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has given the story a much grittier edge to highlight simmering racial tensions that are still familiar today. The scoring and choreography add new motifs but never strays far from the original. Spielberg creates a stunning visual palette of colours and gives fresh impetus to songs enshrined in musical history. The standout remains ‘America’ which benefits from a more expansive backdrop trailing gloriously through the streets of New York. Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort sing beautifully in the leading roles; but it’s the other relationship that still endures in the memory. Anita and Bernardo provide a counter-balance to the romantic giddiness of Maria and Tony. Ariana De Bose is excellent as Anita and proves to be an excellent all-round performer.

Rita Moreno delivers a touching cameo as Valentina; and rightly gets a nod of recognition 60 years after she played Anita in the original and won the Oscar for best supporting actress. But just like an artist covering a classic pop song we almost know they’re on a loser. The original saw five geniuses come together; playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. They committed magic to the big screen and Steven Spielberg has reminded us how it should be done. The late Stephen Sondheim would surely have been pleased with the result. Another light has gone out but we still have the magic to enthral us.


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