In 1950s New York City, tensions between two rival street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, are getting increasingly threatening. One night, Tony (Ansel Elgort), who is the best friends of the leader of the Jets, Riff (Mike Faist), and Maria (Rachel Zegler), who is the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez), meet and fall in love. Their affair could lead to peace between the gangs at last – or alternatively, all-out war.
In ‘West Side Story’, Steven Spielberg takes on his first project in the musical genre and one comes away from this film hoping we’ll see him work in this mode again. Spielberg is one of the great directors of our time and here, again, he proves almost flawless. The sense of texture, style, life and emotion brought into every shot, every scene, is extraordinary.
The ‘West Side Story’ remake brings those musical numbers that fans of the original are so familiar with into fresh light, elevating them to another level. Even when they’re not singing and dancing, the standard of acting across the ensemble is excellent and their on screen energy is vivacious.
As for individual performances, Ansel Elgort (whom audiences will be most familiar with as the star of ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘The Fault in Our Stars’) is great, especially given that as a character, Tony is probably the least interesting part of ‘West Side Story’. Rachel Zegler is fantastic and has the most stunning voice. Ariana DeBose has no easy task taking on the role of Anita, originally played in an Oscar-winning performance by Rita Moreno – particularly given she’s sharing the screen with Moreno. But she makes the role all her own, while other remarkable performances include Mike Faist as Riff and David Alvarez as Bernardo.
The term “triple threat” seems almost redundant as the acting, dancing and singing is all so incredibly impressive. Casting director Cindy Tolan deserves a raise. Of course one can’t neglect in a discussion of the cast the inclusion of Moreno herself, who gets an all-new character who builds on the themes under exploration and gets a couple of heart-wrenching scenes. Thank God Spielberg refused to incorporate her as a cheap cameo. His love for the original ‘West Side Story’ and all it accomplished is powerful. He updates more problematic elements of the original without ever feeling disloyal or dogmatic.
The choreography is fantastic and the actors and setting are framed so beautifully, like something out of a postcard, by Spielberg’s regular DOP Janusz Kaminski (admittedly, the lens flares are probably a little overused). The issues of gentrification, prejudice, racism, and sexism strike a nerve and even when you know what’s coming, the tragedy still hits like a tonne of bricks. While this version of ‘West Side Story’ could not have existed without the 1961 film, we’re very, very glad it does exist.