20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.

Film Review – West Side Story (2021)

Why remake perfection? Why go through such a herculean endeavour when many might pull down your hopes and dreams for something almost as immediately as you’ve announced your intentions? I had a front row seat to an initial fan reaction to the news that a new West Side Story was coming when I told my Mum and she recoiled in disbelief. “Oh no” she energetically screamed at the sheer notion of someone trampling over the impact of the original film and, indeed, the musical that preceded it. That was until I replied “Steven Spielberg is directing it” and, like many others since, she took a beat and said “Oooooh”. She, and millions more were immediately intrigued and far less fearful than they were ten seconds earlier. Fears allayed then, more so now with the news that Spielberg’s remake, while perfunctory in nature in many ways, is a triumph, aside from the elephant in the room.

What’s evident, plain and simple, from those opening moments of this shiny new version is the love and affection that Spielberg has for the material and how it has impacted his life from the moment he saw it. Beginning with the classic number but brought to life in new, exciting, unimaginable ways, this is clearly his vision and how he wanted to intertwine the original, the stage show and his own style into one wholly fantastical event. Some may argue it’s the same again and in many respects you’d be correct but it’s through the uniquely energetic, charismatic and vivacious way that Spielberg makes his film that lends West Side Story its freshness, its chutzpah, its love and about that none of us will complain.

Even small touches that weren’t thought of before now feel necessary, lending the the film a new sense of wonder as cranes sweep and swoop through his New York City of 1957 as Tony and Maria cross the divides and barriers to fall in love, broadening our minds beyond the walls of the sound stages so intrinsically linked to the original film, busting through them with spellbinding splendour and vivacious colours. Truly, and it’s something many will say when watching a good musical, your feet won’t sit still throughout. 

Also key to its success is its new cast who are almost faultless to a performer. Almost, for there is a bum note here and it’s, sadly, Ansel Elgort as Tony who was always going to make headlines whether he wanted to or not but it’s not for those “elephant in the room” ways many might be expecting. No, it’s simply, that he isn’t right for this part, jarringly so, in fact, so that each time he appears the impact of the character – his Tony is more jagged and rundown with a new backstory but you feel nothing of the mental scars that have changed his life – is lost and threatens to derail the incredible work around him, not least that of Rachel Zegler’s debut alongside him as Maria, who is spellbinding.

Ariana DeBose, fresh from corn pudding fun in Apple’s brilliant Schmigadoon, is wonderful as are David Alvarez and Mike Faist in the ensemble, piercing through the film like sharks (I thank you) , circling the star-crossed lovers waiting for the perfect time to strike, doing so majestically in America and Tonight with aplomb. Our clear shining light, though, is undoubtedly the return of the impeccable, splendid Rita Moreno as Valentina and her rendition of Somewhere is a joy to behold. 

So, in the echelon of musicals that have descended upon us through 2021 – despite some originally set for last year -, where does Spielberg’s rendition land? Well, it’s been a strong year for the genre and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s astounding Tick, Tick, Boom..! will take the crown in this critic’s eyes, but the legendary filmmaker’s passion project isn’t far behind, and despite its faults, it’s a remarkable achievement.

★★★★


Musical, Drama | Cert: 12A | 20th Century Studios | Cinemas: 10th December, 2021 | Dir. Steven Spielberg | Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Rita Moreno, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll