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West Side Story
Review by Rich Cline | MUST SEE
dir Steven Spielberg
scr Tony Kushner
prd Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum
with Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d'Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andres Rivera, Iris Menas, David Aviles Morales, Paloma Garcia-Lee
release US/UK 10.Dec.21
21/US 20th Century 2h36
Is it streaming?
With his first musical, Steven Spielberg audaciously spins a 60-year-old classic into a fresh, exhilarating movie that has a lot to say to audiences today. The approach is both reverent and inventive, making terrific use of the original Arthur Laurents book and songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, while adding skilfully eye-catching cinematic touches that highlight the emotional depth. And the cast beautifully evokes the story and setting.
In 1957 Manhattan, slums are being razed while ethnic tensions simmer between European-American locals and Puerto Rican immigrants, teen gangs calling themselves Jets and Sharks, respectively. Tony (Elgort) is just out of prison and determined to distance himself from his racist Jet pals, including best friend Riff (Faist), the group's firebrand leader. But when Tony falls for Maria (Zegler), sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (Alvarez), trouble rumbles to the surface at a community dance. Tony and Maria do what they can to avert a brawl scheduled by Riff and Bernardo, but the situation only escalates.
Spielberg styles the film as a vintage musical, diving into the late-1950s setting while faithfully deploying Bernstein's extraordinary jazz-spiked score. Skilful writing and directing offer new perspectives that construct a timely depiction of a polarised society with people at each others' throats despite shared interests. And the vivid characters add sharp angles to the themes. But the movie's true power is in its wrenching emotional scenes, which properly grab hold of the audience.
Elgort and newcomer Zegler bring sweet naivete to Tony and Maria, which echoes endearingly in the soaring songs. Everyone else supplies the colour. As Bernardo's feisty girlfriend Anita, DeBose lights up the screen as a powerhouse performer, especially in the show-stopping America. In a stroke of casting genius, Moreno (who won an Oscar playing Anita in the 1961 film) shines brightly as Valentina, stealing the film with her rendition of Somewhere. There are also strong, surprising roles for Rivera (as Chino) and Menas (as Anybodys).
The film is strikingly shot by Janusz Kaminski using whizzy camerawork to capture characters and locations, and Justin Peck's expressive choreography makes this as much a dance film as it is a musical. But of course these elements are in service to a robust story based on Romeo & Juliet, exploring the destructive divisions caused by fear and prejudice. In Spielberg's masterful hands the film never becomes preachy, remaining tightly character-based right to the shattering final act. It's a sensational film. And it's impossible not to get the point.
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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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