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Review: West Side Story (2021)

Clementine Scott reviews Steven Spielberg's latest adaptation of West Side Story

CW: sexual assault.

For musical theatre purists and sceptics alike, Steven Spielberg’s reboot of West Side Story remains a hard sell. According to the naysayers, the Oscar-winning 1961 film, itself adapted from Sondheim and Bernstein’s musical update of Romeo and Juliet, is timeless, and sacrilegious for Spielberg even to think about revising it. Another possible argument is that the reboot should have at least set the classic story in the present day, instead of recreating 1950s New York through meticulously researched sets and costumes.

However, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have understood that, unlike the timeless tale of star-crossed lovers which inspired it, the love story between María (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) takes place in a distinct political context which isn’t straightforwardly transferable to a different time and place. From the film’s opening shots, it is clear that the Jets and Sharks’ motivations for gang violence stem from misdirected rage against the gentrification of their Upper West Side neighbourhood — the unmistakable opening whistles of Leonard Bernstein’s score have a newly sinister quality when accompanying a wrecking ball about to tear down an immigrant neighbourhood in favour of the new Lincoln Center.

The question of why the gangs were fighting in the first place continues to be addressed throughout the film, with some tightly observed monologues from Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the white European immigrant Jets, whose motivation lies somewhere at the intersection of working class disaffection and xenophobia. On the Puerto Rican side, gang leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) discuss, in one of the film’s most effective new scenes, the tension between Anita’s optimism about moving to New York and Bernardo’s insecurity in his outsider status and desire for a traditional life in Puerto Rico — these are, of course, themes touched on in the lyrics of ‘America’. Indeed, ideas of police corruption, disaffection, and the uneasy status of immigrants were all bristling under the surface throughout the 1961 film (those who deride Spielberg’s reimagining as a ‘woke’ corruption of a classic weren’t paying enough attention to the original), but Spielberg and Kushner’s added dialogue allows the audience a deeper look into what was there all along.

Sometimes the additional context can feel a little didactic — Lieutenant Schrank’s (Corey Stoll) opening monologue about the changes in the area edges on overly expository, and one more wonders whether eighteen-year-old recent immigrant María really would be so well-informed about social issues in New York. Moreover, some of the film’s most meaningful scenes are those which do not deviate wildly from the original film, but inevitably resonate more in the different political context of 2021 — Anita’s implied sexual assault and Anybodys’ (now played by non-binary actor Iris Menas) exclusion from the Jets have new meaning in a society with a more modern perspective regarding sexual violence and LGBTQ+ issues.

However, at its best, West Side Story feels like an expanded approach to a familiar tale, providing peripheral characters with humanity and a life outside the central love story. The devil is in the details of these characters’ lives, whether that’s Anita at church or Tony and María going on a date to the Cloisters in Washington Heights, or the very fact that we see characters take the subway, or the expanded role of shopkeeper Valentina (a reimagined version of the original’s Doc, played by Rita Moreno, who portrayed Anita in 1961) acting as employer and mentor to Tony. In the case of the Puerto Rican characters, the film’s commitment to portraying a more complete picture of their lives extends not only to (thankfully) casting only Latinx actors in these roles, but also to scripting crucial scenes wholly or partly in unsubtitled Spanish — as Spielberg recently told a press conference, “that language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help.”.

Spielberg’s approach — expanding upon the original without fundamentally changing it — also extends to the musical numbers. Though Spielberg’s well-documented love of the original stage musical and film is evidenced through some loving recreations of the original staging (other than a pointed reference to María’s illegal housing situation, ‘Tonight’ is nearly identical to the iconic 1961 balcony scene), most other numbers are subtly yet meaningfully altered. Rita Moreno’s performance of ‘America’ in 1961 was a musical theatre gateway drug for many, myself included, and in his version Spielberg fortunately doesn’t add gimmick-y detail so excessive as to prevent the score and choreography from speaking for themselves. Nevertheless, having the song performed in a community setting, in a lush period reconstruction of a majority-Latinx New York City street, celebrates Puerto Rican New Yorkers beyond Maria, Anita and Bernardo in a way that the original did not. More radically, Spielberg has Tony rather than Riff (as in the original Broadway musical) or fellow Jet Ice (as in the 1961 film) perform ‘Cool’, a decision so perfect one wonders why no previous production had ever come up with it — a number which felt like a bizarre afterthought in the original film performed by a character who had not previously spoken, is now a raw, desperate attempt on the part of a best friend to prevent further conflict.

Not every attempt at rethinking the staging of the original film’s musical numbers feels necessary, however. The sublime depiction of the universal thrill of first love that is ‘María’, performed by Tony on the way home from his and María’s fateful first meeting, was somewhat ruined by comical, fourth-wall-breaking reaction shots of bemused passers-by; this, alongside the decision to depict Tony as newly released from prison, represented the film’s questionable tendency of sacrificing the idealism and naivety crucial to Tony’s (and Romeo’s) character in favour of strict realism.

The musical numbers mostly work, though, thanks to the laudable decision to cast actors with backgrounds predominantly on the stage (with the exception of Elgort) in most of the leading roles. 20-year-old newcomer Zegler’s expressive soprano is capable of portraying a blend of ingenue charm and teenage defiance that is perfect for the new script’s more rounded version of María. Alvarez and Faist have their gang leader characters’ brutish charisma nailed to an extent that one realises how miscast the original Bernardo and especially Riff (whose vibe in 1961 was strangely wholesome) were. However, it is unfortunately also necessary to mention the allegations of sexual assault made in 2020 against Ansel Elgort; though West Side Story had already wrapped production when the allegations were made public, it is still a shameful oversight on the part of Spielberg and his fellow producers that the film’s trailers, press events and promotional materials have continued to feature the actor prominently.

Despite some flaws onscreen and serious errors of judgment offscreen, Spielberg’s West Side Story reimagines its source material with obvious affection for its predecessor, but also with a new sense of ambition about the iconic story — it is not only a timeless love story, but a snapshot of a moment in history and of the people who lived in that moment.

Image: West Side Story Movie/Facebook

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