West Side Story: Sondheim’s lyrics still crackle in Spielberg’s movie

Review: Steven Spielberg revives Bernstein and Sondheim’s classic musical for the screen

West Side Story
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Director: Steven Spielberg
Cert: 12A
Genre: Musical
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera, Iris Menas
Running Time: 2 hrs 36 mins

When it was announced that Steven Spielberg was to "remake" the much-celebrated 1961 film of West Side Story, there was much rhetorical pondering of whether such a thing was "necessary". What could he add? The great man might reasonably have noted that the original stage show has been revived dozens of times with few suggestions that, as they got it right in 1957, no further disinterment was required. Spielberg's desire to work on an American classic is reason enough for this film to exist.

That noted, the director and Tony Kushner, author of the new screenplay, have found worthwhile ways of reinventing the material for our times. Beginning with a sign that tells us this area of Manhattan is being demolished to make way for the Lincoln Center — the sort of place you might see West Side Story — is a bit of a clunker, but the sense of imminent eviction places the Puerto Rican community in historical context. They are hemmed in in a ghetto. But the dust drifting in from continuing demolition reminds us that, in a decade or two, even that will be taken from them.

Spielberg's West Side Story will no more replace the much-celebrated 1961 film than Denzel Washington's upcoming Macbeth will erase the Orson Welles take — but he has given us more than most of us deserve

Without any anachronism, Kushner also manages to put some juice into the show's depiction of the police. The cops let the Jets, the largely white gang, away with a cuff on the ear but, wagging fingers when Spanish is spoken, expect the Sharks, mostly Latino, to tip the forelock at every invasion of their space. Spielberg's West Side Story, though still largely a creation of white men, is alive to all related concerns. In 1961, Natalie Wood was browned up as Maria. Now Latinos play all the Puerto Rican roles.

One can sense conservative pundits rooting out the Woke Repellent. It would, however, require superhuman perversity to deny that this version retains — and sometimes exceeds — the musical and dramatic verve of the 1961 film. True, there is an issue with the leads. Ansel Elgort, as Tony, manages to adapt his modest singing and dancing abilities to the challenging material, but he can't shake off the preppie aura that hangs about his uptown shoulders. Rachel Zegler, this year's Maria, moves like a ballerina and sings with heavenly precision, but she is just a little too prim and polished (no surprise that she will play the lead in Disney's upcoming live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).


Most everyone else is terrific. Anita, the part that won Rita Moreno an Oscar, was always the most arresting character, and Ariana DeBose grabs her opportunity and clutches it with white knuckles. DeBose flies through the gorgeous staging of America — among the greatest show-stoppers in musical theatre — with an apparent abandon that belies her perfect technique. Mike Faist and David Alvarez, respectively Mercutio Jet and Tybalt Shark in this Romeo and Juliet iteration, are equally and differently engaging as Riff and Bernardo. Ms Moreno herself returns in a new role that places her poignantly between the two camps. The decision to have her sing Somewhere, hitherto in possession of the lovers (and Tom Waits), proves to be an act of minor genius. The song is no less moving for its emergence at a different angle to the narrative.

Though the film acknowledges political realities, Spielberg is right to avoid any efforts at documentary realism. The sets remain sets. CGI helps maintain an unreal visual coherence. A determined colour scheme for the combatants — blue for the Jets, red for the sharks — further reinforces the formality that is woven into musical theatre. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is more subdued than the Technicolor of 60 years ago, but it still admits a startling boldness.

Spielberg's West Side Story will no more replace the first film than Denzel Washington's upcoming Macbeth will erase the Orson Welles take. Not every tweak and shave works — there is a brief, unfortunate vacuum in the closing scene — but Spielberg has given us more than most of us deserve. Here is a fitting, accidental tribute to Stephen Sondheim, whose lyrics still crackle above Leonard Bernstein's score, a few weeks after his death.

Opens on Friday, December 10th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist