west side story
director: steven spielberg (schindler's list, saving private ryan)
starring: ansel elgort, rachel zegler, ariana debose, and rita moreno
REVIEWER: lyall carter
An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.
Spielberg. Despite being one of the best directors in cinema history, creating films across most genres has never made a musical. Until now. With West Side Story Spielberg tackles not only an audience classic but an Oscar-winning one at that. While the scale of Spielberg’s West Side Story is epic to say the least with superb musical numbers, the central love story doesn’t get lost in it all and packs one hell of an emotional punch.
Love, at first sight, strikes when young Tony spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks - two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.
Gotta admit that I’ve never seen the original West Side Story - the musical or the film. So I’m no real help at comparing Spielberg’s version with the original but on the other hand was able to engage with the story with fresh eyes.
And while it plays as a quasi Romeo and Juliet it is much more than that. West Side Story is a real American tale of immigrants and those who have been left behind by capitalism’s expansion. It is a fable that is needed to speak to issues that we face today as much as was needed years ago. And at its centre is a love story that will move you to tears.
Even though I didn’t really know the songs they definitely land some heavy emotional punches especially when Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 version, returns in a newly created role and sings the number Somewhere. It’s truly moving.
The production design is gorgeous and, pardon the pun sings from the screen. Spielberg manages to stack so much in each shot, so much life, and colour, that it feels like its fits to burst. It really helps to transport you to the world and era.
The ensemble cast is superbly led by Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler who have palpable chemistry. David Alvarez as Bernado and Ariana DeBose are also standouts.
While the scale of Spielberg’s West Side Story is epic to say the least with superb musical numbers, the central love story doesn’t get lost in it all and packs one hell of an emotional punch.