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  • Writer's pictureMartin Cheney

West Side Story (2021)


It’s been an interesting year for film musicals. Jon M. Chu’s brilliant adaptation of In the Heights lulled us into a false sense of security before the abominable spring-streamed double feature of Cinderella and Diana: The Musical reminded us of how they can go horribly wrong. However, all hope in the medium has just been restored by the ultimate cinematic triple threat of Spielberg, Bernstein and Sondheim with the release of West Side Story. This updated version of the original 1957 Broadway production and subsequent 1961 film has allayed all qualms about its necessity. It’s an electrifying, fresh, propulsive and raw reimagining of what a musical revival can be, simultaneously paying homage to its beloved inspiration and breathing new life into it at the same time. Spielberg’s West Side Story is the best film of the year and easily one of the greatest film musicals of all time.

Members of the But Why Are They Singing And Dancing Brigade made an easy meme of the original productions, with the warring factions of sinewy street urchins angrily leaping and clicking at each other as a choreographic substitute for angsty, simmering malice. Jerome Robbins’ original work is unmatched and established the paradigm for jazz ballet in music theatre, which makes Justin Peck’s achievement in this 2021 version all the more impressive. There’s a fluidity to the motion that intrinsically integrates the dance into the characters’ natural movement — it’s a dream collaboration between a choreographer and dancers clearly on the same wavelength. Spielberg has the nous to linger on wide shots, allowing the immaculate ensemble unison dance moments to fill the frame. Where a film that tries to trick you into thinking it's more exciting than it is would rely on flashy, quick edits, here we see a filmmaker trust that the natural, uninhibited staging is the most interesting version of what's happening. This is as close as you'll get to experiencing the full scale of live theatre in a film (replete with just enough lens flare to keep JJ Abrams happy).

I'm not a Spielberg fiend by any means, but this is surely some of the most assured work of his career. The opening sequence is breathtaking and could easily win him the Oscar for Best Director by itself, but he wastes no time continuing to make his case for the ensuing 156 minutes. There is seemingly no end to the ingenuity of his visual repertoire, from reflections in puddles to birds-eye views of impossibly elongated shadows of the Jets and Sharks circling each other — there's a single overhead shot following the first two devastating deaths (which echoes the gangs' entrance a few minutes earlier) that's an immediate all-timer. This ends the rumble scene, the most emotionally exhausting sequence of the film, which makes immediate stars of Mike Faist (Riff) and David Alvarez (Bernardo). The culmination of acting, direction, editing, underscore and lighting in this moment is simply a masterclass. Even those with little to no interest in musicals should find plenty to digest here.

In both voice and persona (while certainly at the lower end of the film's strengths), Ansel Elgort is a fine Tony and Rachel Zegler's innocent yet feisty Maria completes a believable and sincere duo that binds the hopeful, optimistic and naive elements of the plot together. However, Ariana DeBose completely runs away with this film in her portrayal of Anita, which will be of little surprise to anyone familiar with her previous music theatre work, particularly in the worldwide sensation Hamilton and the lacklustre Schmigadoon!, of which her work was one of the only redeeming features. Her vibrancy fills and overflows the screen, her dynamic performance striking the perfect balance between seeing the genuine beauty in the Manhattan way of life, while also being just jaded enough to acknowledge her Puerto Rican allies may never be fully welcomed. Anything short of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination (and the same for Mike Faist, since you asked) will be an injustice. She completely steals the show in 'America', an unabashedly joyful staging of perhaps the musical's most recognisable number, which unwittingly acts as a kind of prequel to the 'Carnaval del Barrio' sequence from In the Heights earlier this year. I wonder what Anita and Daniela would say to each other if they met in a cosmic, fictional waiting room.

There is not much to say about Bernstein's magnificent score and Sondheim's clever, efficient lyrics that's not already been said. There are few shows with as many iconic musical moments as West Side Story, but David Newman's arrangements somehow elevate the material even further, and screenwriter Tony Kushner has some truly effective tricks up his sleeve. The 'Prologue' is still bursting with energy. The 'Dance at the Gym' (particularly the Mambo) is a treat for just about every sense. 'Gee, Officer Krupke' is tight, intricate and funny. 'I Feel Pretty' is completely repositioned, both dramatically and chronologically, injecting it with a previously-untapped poignancy and significance. My most personally anticipated number, 'Cool', reimagines the line "got a rocket in your pocket" in a more literal way, and replaces the final coolly-cool pose with something much more sinister. Pow.

Music theatre folk can be very territorial when the words "remake", "revival" and "film adaptation" get bandied around, and often for good reason. At the end of the year that we lost the great Stephen Sondheim, these feelings will likely be amplified to a fever pitch. The highest praise I can heap upon Steven Spielberg is that I hope this is not the last film musical he directs, because he directs with a theatrical eye and unwavering trust of his performers that other directors could stand to emulate. As for the pointless question of whether this is superior to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' 1961 film, it would probably be career suicide for me to answer, but if you've read this far, you probably know where I stand. Could be, who knows?


West Side Story is in cinemas now.

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