Taking on a project to bring back to the screen a successful musical from
1957 and an even more successful film adaptation (1961) was always going to
be fraught with danger as comparisons are always going to be inevitable.
Thankfully any worries that this was going to be a big disappointment are
well and truly dismissed as Steven Spielberg’s adaption of West Side Story
is a triumph from the first minute to the last.
Sticking pretty much to the original narrative of the 1957 musical, with
only a few tweets to bring it up to date for a modern audience, Spielberg
has stamped his own personality over the story in a way that will, if
there’s any justice, bring him the coveted best director Oscar when the
awards are handed out in 2022.
The story, which itself is inspired by Willian Shakespeare’s Romeo and
Juliet, sees two street gangs The Sharks from Puerto Rico and The Jets, a
white gang, fighting for territory and bragging rights in mid 1950s Upper
West Side New York. Tony (Ansel Elgort) a former member of the Jets falls
in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez),
the leader of the Sharks.
The musical numbers, as they always have been, are terrific and are
wonderfully choreographed by Tony Award winner Justin Peck. Performances
are, on the whole terrific, with Rachel Zegler (María) & Ariana DeBose
(Anita) being the two standouts, Zegler, this being her first screen role,
is particularly impressive. Rita Moreno who was Anita in the original film
adds a nice nostalgic connection to 1961 film as she plays Valentina, the
owner of a corner store in which Tony works.
As a note of interest and perhaps to clear up why the change in pace of the
film about two thirds of the way through feels so jarring as it switches
from the most dramatic scene in the film to a one of the happiest songs in
the film, I Feel Pretty. The original Broadway show was in two acts with
Act 1 ending with the famous rumble and after a break the musical resumed
with Act 2 and I Feel Pretty. The 1961 film manged to get round the sudden
change in story by itself having an intermission. Spielberg himself doesn’t
have the luxury of a break and this is about the only point in the story
where the 2021 version to a slight degree fails. But it’s only a small
quibble and one that probably won’t be noticed by most people.
West Side Story (2021) is a joy from start to finish and is easily one of
the best, if not the best, films of 2021, don’t miss.