West Side Story (12A)Cast: Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose, Ansel Elgort
Author(s): Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Tony Kushner
Director: Steven Spielberg
Release Date: 10/12/2021
Running Time: 156mins
In gentrified 1950s New York, tensions between feuding gangs are inflamed when Jets co-founder Tony, recently released from prison after almost beating a boy to death, defies best friend Riff and falls head over heels in love with Maria, baby sister of Sharks leader Bernardo. Romance blossoms as Riff and Bernardo convene their tribes for a rumble to decide whether Americans or Puerto Ricans rule the roost.
LondonNet Film Review
West Side Story (12A)
In a feature film career stretching back 40 years to the nail-biting road rage thriller Duel, director Steven Spielberg has nimbly traversed genres, smashed box office records and collected two Academy Awards for his impeccable work behind the camera. For all that deserved success and his mastery of the modern blockbuster with Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park, Spielberg has thus far shimmied away from the heightened reality of a big screen musical…
Very good things come to those who wait because his update of West Side Story is a visually stunning, unreservedly old-fashioned song and dance spectacle on a grandiose scale, which pays due reverence to stage and screen predecessors, the book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Sixty years after Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ Oscar-winning film opened with those syncopated finger snaps to introduce the feuding Jets and Sharks, screenwriter Tony Kushner addresses cultural insensitivities head-on.
Every Puerto Rican character is played by an actor from the Latinx community, Spanish dialogue has no English subtitles as a mark of respect to the language, and drugstore owner Doc has been replaced with his widow Valentina to provide an eye-catching role for Rita Moreno, Oscar-winning star of the 1961 film. The Wise and Robbins take on West Side Story was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and Spielberg and his creative collaborators won’t be far behind.
Production and costume design powerfully evoke gentrified 1950s New York and its fashionable swagger, the editing of musical sequences is en pointe, while Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, conjures breathtaking imagery like streetlights reflected in standing water in an overhead shot of Tony singing Maria or the elongated shadows of rival gangs stretching towards each other for an ill-fated “rumble”. Those tensions are inflamed when Jets co-founder Tony (Ansel Elgort), recently released from prison after almost beating a boy to death, defies best friend Riff (Mike Faist) and falls head over heels in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), baby sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez).
West Side Story nods respectfully to previous incarnations including choreographer Justin Peck’s breathless riffs on Robbins’ stylised movements. Elgort can’t match the intensity of co-stars – in some scenes he doesn’t seem entirely present – but there is a tenderness to his duet with Zegler on Tonight.
She brings palpable fire to her role and Ariana DeBose melts every frame as Bernardo’s sassy girlfriend Anita – the role which secured Moreno her Oscar – including a skirt-swishing rendition of America worthy of a standing ovation. Moreno delivers a haunting solo of Somewhere that tingles down the spine and underscores the raw emotion coursing beneath the technical virtuosity.
– Jo Planter
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