A new standard has been set outstandingly high in this urgent, faultless and inspiring revival. When the world of a divided and impoverished 1957’s
His 32nd film and dedicated ‘To Dad’, Spielberg grew up entranced by the original cast recording of the Broadway show and his vision for this West Side Story oozes with sincerity and insight while remaining true to its first screen outing in 1961 (by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins). As I wondered out of the cinema into a star-lit evening humming ‘Tonight’ on repeat, I couldn’t help but think “that’s how it’s done.”
Cinematically, it’s a work of art with visually delicious treats of a 1950’s cityscape. Musically and choreographically, it is possibly the highest standard of musical theatre performance in film to date, and it’s perfect casting of the star-crossed-lovers and supporting cast where quite literally written in the stars. The opposing gangs, the Sharks and Jets, were consciously cast authentically to their ethnic backgrounds and Puerto Rican actress Rachel Zegler’s star-making turn as Maria gave some of the most visceral and intimate moments in its touchingly memorable soundtrack (by Leonard Bernstein and the recently passed Stephen Sondheim). And, who knew Baby Driver (Ansel Elgort) could sing? Elgort’s Tony was as love-struck as he was haunted by his past and complemented Zegler’s angelic Maria with real heart. Ariana DeBose as Anita too shone bright with the necessary grit and vivacity to carry the heavier scenes, along with her predecessor Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film). Moreno, here, played Valentina, the maternal root of the community who held an endearing presence singing ‘There’s a place for us’. The rival leaders, David Alvarez as Bernardo and Mike Faist as Riff played off each other so well, I almost forgot this was a fictional feud and Brian D’Arcy James’s Officer Krupke held his own in some of the more hard-hitting storylines.
Much of the film was bilingual, with some scenes predominantly in Spanish (without subtitles) which made for a beautiful subtlety and understanding of the differences between the two cultures at logger-heads. The screenwriter Tony Kushner, felt this new sense of relevance in the representation; “This story is not only a product of its time, but that time has returned, and it’s returned with a kind of social fury.” Every detail of every shot had this level of awareness and care in this tale of community-centred mutually assured destruction. Resoundingly though, the joy of this musical romp clearly found its way back into the audience’s hearts as the cinema seats rattled along to the beat of the vibrant ‘America’ number, and I too can attest to dreaming of dancing through the streets in Anita’s off-shoulder yellow dress ‘para siempre’.
If you make it to the Picturehouse over this Christmas break, make this divine Oscar-nominated adaptation your first choice.