West Side Story

Delayed by a year due to Covid, Steven Spielberg’s remake of this classic musical gets a lot right... with one major misstep.

Image for West Side Story

West Side Story (20th Century Studios)

Little-known director Señor Steven Spielbergo directs his first musical by remaking Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Tall ask, as Robert Wise’s 1961 screen version won Best Picture at the Oscars (along with nine other golden baldies), and stands as one of the most celebrated classics of the genre. No pressure then.

The story remains the same, with founding member of white street gang – the Jets – Tony (Ansel Elgort) falling head-over-heels for Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of Bernado (David Alvarez), who is the leader of rival gang, the Puerto Rican Sharks. Spielberg tinkers and rearranges some of the fixtures with the help of screenwriter Tony Kushner: out goes some of the cringey dialogue and high-kicks, and in with Latinx casting and Puerto Rican characters that actually speak non-subtitled Spanish – a neat addition that sidesteps some of the original’s crass stereotypes and avoids ‘othering’ half of the characters.

On the whole, the director manages a tricky balancing act that just about works: Spielberg stays reverent to the material but does make it his own. There is no drastic shake-up, but it’s also not the shameless capitalisation on nostalgia many had feared. Granted, the themes of race and gentrification can feel a bit hand-holdy at times, and a cynic could argue that the changes linked to diversity are a critique-proof nod to the film industry’s grappling with race and representation on screen; however, the excellent results speak for themselves, and the modernised elements are valuable.

The opening is worth dwelling on: instead of a sweeping vista of Manhattan, Spielberg kicks things off with an extended camera swoop of rubble that looks like a bomb has just dropped on the soon-to-be Lincoln Center. Instead of a war zone, it’s a wrecking-balled demolition project which not only foreshadows the chaos of the turf wars between the Jets and the Sharks, but adds a fascinating larger backdrop of the crushing gentrification that both sides are fighting, a lost battle that unites the warring factions even if they don’t fully realise it.

The main draw of this reimagining comes in the form of a recasting homage: Rita Moreno – the original Anita – returns as the newly created character, Valentina, a widowed Puerto Rican shop owner who takes Tony under her wing. She steals every scene she’s in, especially when she’s given the lead couple’s standout song, Somewhere. Instead of a romantic ballad, Moreno transforms it into a heart-wrenching number that adds some metatextual layers to the character and the whole movie: she’s seen this happen before and, with one song, she tragically encompasses that the clock keeps ticking and the generation-spanning tragedies remain the same. Just be done with it and give her the Best Supporting awards already.

Beyond the fact she deserves it for this performance, there’s a neat Oscar-voter-pandering narrative here: Moreno became the first – and shamefully still only – Latina ever to win an acting Oscar for the original version. This could see her make Oscar history, in more ways than one: if nominated early February, Moreno will be 90 years old, which would make her the oldest nominee in history. If she wins, she’ll also become the actor with the longest time span between wins (60 years).

Before thinking about awards, however, the main issue keeping West Side Story from being a five-star triumph needs addressing. While I hate singling out one performer and dumping all of a film’s flaws at their doorstep, one question is borderline unavoidable here: why in the name of original lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s ghost would you pick someone with the charisma of an offensively beige plimsole to play the leading role, Tony? Ansel Elgort may look the part, but everything from his delivery, his attempts at emotion and his supposedly “charming” affectations are all off. This key casting SNAFU leads to a noticeable lack of chemistry between the two leads, which in turn undermines the socio-political underpinnings of the commentary, through no fault of the luminescent Rachel Zegler. His miscasting is made even more noticeable when the smirking Elgort shares the screen with some proper talent and absolute revelations who can, you know… act.

It’s another tall ask, but if you can look past Elgort’s tall-glass-of-vanilla-nothing energy, then there are rewards aplenty: Rachel Zegler absolutely smashes it in her film debut, Hamilton’s Ariana DeBose makes her Anita an absolute burst of onscreen energy that is both kinetic and multidimensional, and the cast as a whole are terrific.

Add choreographer Justin Peck’s vibrant and intelligently composed dance sequences and the expressionist colours that beautifully pop from the screen, and you’ve got yourself a stylish homage romp that does justify its remake status. It’s just a pity about that bloody leading man…

West Side Story / D: Steven Spielberg (US, 2021), with Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno.