After four and a half decades Steven Spielberg has returned almost to where he started; directing a film with sharks and aliens. These aren’t the same as those that came under his lens in the 70s though, in fact this movie is not like anything Spielberg has done before. It’s a lot like something someone else has done before but not him. Yep, for his very first song and dance film Steven Spielberg has adapted one of the most famous stage and screen musicals, that comes from winning Best Picture at the 1962 Oscars as well as having had over ten Broadway and West End productions and innumerable school show versions the length and breadth of the world (including one recently featuring this film’s newcomer star and even one from some years ago that had the author of this review in it).
Some critics have wanted something new and unexpected, some have said that Spielberg missed an opportunity to reinvent the source material, like Baz Luhrmann did with the source material’s source material in 96’s Romeo + Juliet. Some definitely seem to have been disappointed. The fact is though. that West Side Story is one of the greatest, if not the greatest musical and Spielberg has made a perfect new version of it. As such, it is simply wonderful.
There is no getting round it, much loved as it is, Robert Wise’s 1961 film is not a perfect version of West Side Story. Parts of it are superb but generally it is very dated and the casting of mostly white actors in Caribbean parts is terrible. You might tell me this was acceptable at the time but so was caning, smoking on planes, lead paint, asbestos and not putting babies in a car seat. In many respects this is a better time and in many respects this is a better movie.
The provocative, soaring operatic music, bold contradictory refrains and beautiful love songs are as sublime now as they ever were but these are now played over stunning sets, authentic performances and brilliant set pieces. The dancing was always great in Wise’s movie too but Spielberg has expanded these sequences giving them reinvention without really changing the iconic choreography, most notable in the ‘America’ and ‘Krupke’ songs.
The characterisation and motivations are so much stronger in this new adaptation too. You really get a sense of the struggles and the reasons for the conflict here. Prejudice and bigotry still rule but this was so thinly sketched before. Now you get the pain of those involved rather than just the hate.
The performances are also excellent. Newcomer Rachel Zeglar is amazing as Maria, giving the part the difficult mix of youth and maturity it demands in the same way Claire Danes managed with her Juliet. Ansel Elgort plays well opposite her as well, better than I feared he would from seeing some of his other films. Particular mention has to go to Ariana DeBose though, who is possibly the stand out as Anita. I wonder if, following Vito Corleone and the Joker, we will now see two women win the Academy Award for playing the same part.
Speaking of which original Maria Rita Moreno returns in a new role and is fantastic too. Her inclusion is so much more than stunt casting and I also wonder if we could also see the same woman win for two different versions of the same film.
Here is the real measure of Spielberg’s West Side Story though. It made me cry at the end. For a story that is so familiar and that actually holds so few surprises, for it to make me emotional about final moments that I knew so well were coming, that is impressive. This shows you how much the film drew me in and put thoughts of any other version out of my mind. Essentially it took something old and made it new again. Spielberg’s West Side Story is somehow a celebration of movie making both classic and contemporary and I loved it.