West Side Story (2021)

Steven Spielberg | 2hr 36min

In a film culture drowning in adaptations of existing intellectual property, West Side Story is a timely reminder that remakes of beloved movies need not necessarily be considered an attempt to displace revered legacies and treasured childhood memories. Besides the very specific casting choice of Rita Moreno, Steven Spielberg barely references the original at all, making this adaptation just as much a product of his own vibrant artistic vision as the 1961 version was Robert Wise’s. No longer is New York lit like a furnace burning with the passion of lovers and rivals, but it is rather washed out with cold blues and greys, underscoring the scarcity and desperation of this city that can only be pierced by the vibrant cultural expressions bursting forth from the characters’ costumes, blocking, and dancing.

In this cinematic take on the classic musical, scaffolding, machinery, and debris litter the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Spielberg brings us into this right from the very first shot when he lifts us up into the air in a magnificently long take, sweeping across dystopian demolition sites of torn-down buildings before dropping us into the prologue’s heated balletic clash between Sharks and Jets. Later on in the musical number ‘Cool’, the collapsed shell of an old freight station becomes the tumbledown stage upon which Tony calls the Jets to step down from the planned rumble, visually working in conjunction with the questions of territory roiling around in the screenplay to turn this urban environment into an apocalyptic wasteland ruled by gangs.

Derelict architecture and debris setting the scene for this adaptation of West Side Story, as these gangs steadily find themselves being displaced within a gradually gentrifying neighbourhood.
Marvellous set pieces from Spielberg, particularly in using this salt warehouse as the setting for the rumble.

Though praise must be given to the editing in those quiet montages of the city that underscore a palpable tension in the air and the precariously balanced ‘Tonight Quintet’, Spielberg’s brilliant camerawork largely forms the foundation of his cinematic achievement all throughout West Side Story. At its most dazzling, he soars his camera over the top of a dance at the local gym, before dropping it to the floor and letting it crawl around the legs of the attendees. In subtler moments it effortlessly integrates with his choreography and blocking, particularly in ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ where the Jets turn the police station into a playground for both themselves and the camera to energetically zoom around in an irreverent mockery of clueless authority figures. This is to say nothing of Spielberg’s creative angles which heighten the forbidden interactions between lovers Tony and Maria through extreme highs and lows on the side of an apartment building, as well as those Dutch tilts which further throw this desolate world dramatically off-kilter.

High and low angles heightening the drama of Tony and Maria’s blossoming love, while Spielberg uses the architecture of his set to divide his characters.

Beyond Spielberg’s acute visual acumen, his casting similarly astounds right across his entire ensemble, the only weak link being a performance from Ansel Elgort that never quite matches the edgy verve of almost everyone around him. There is little he can do from being blown off the screen by his co-stars Rachel Zegler and Mike Faist, respectively playing Maria and Riff. In Zegler’s performance, the sweet passion of romance manifests in full bloom, shining brightly in her wide, expressive smile, while Faist’s deadpan disillusionment draws out a touching vulnerability in the leader of the Jets. Rounding out the trio of breakthrough performances in West Side Story is Ariane DeBose, whose charisma and conviction as Anita lifts the number ‘America’ to spectacularly energetic heights and brings the tragedy of this Shakespearean narrative crashing to devastating lows.

The show-stopping America number spills out onto the streets, taking over New York with this vibrant celebration and playful argument.

In smaller characters, Spielberg builds out the social commentary of the piece with minor tweaks, emphasising their attempts to find their place in a society that despises them. On the Sharks’ side, Chino is far more timid than historical representations of him, and as such is equally motivated to earn the respect of the gang as he is to win Maria’s love. Meanwhile, the traditional queer coding of Anybodys manifests here in fully embracing the character’s identity as a trans man wanting to become part of the Jets. This does not exist purely as an adjustment to pre-existing material though, nor does it act as a strained call to modern audiences to appreciate that which came before. Spielberg is one of the truly great pop artists of cinema, and his broad, sweeping style of iconographic filmmaking is well-suited to such classical Shakespearean stories as that which West Side Story takes its own spin on. Above all else, this film is an eruption of creative genius from a master of his craft, flowing with musical excitement, tragedy, and remarkable stylistic ambition.

Remarkable blocking even beyond the fantastic musical numbers as Spielberg creates gorgeous formations out of his ensemble.
One of the greatest shots of the film – expressionistic shadows moving towards each other in anticipation of the rumble.

West Side Story is currently playing in theatres.


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