Steven Spielberg has done just about everything in his five-decade career, from horror to comedy, science-fiction to historical drama. Yet until now, there is one genre that Spielberg has not ventured into, and after seeing the final product, viewers will be left scratching their heads as to why the legendary director waited so long to do so.
In the late Fifties, amidst a period of gentrification in New York City, tensions between working-class communities are at their peak – principally the Italian-American adolescents, known collectively as the Jets, and the Puerto Rican youths called the Sharks. Caught between this feud are two star-crossed lovers, Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) whose adoration for one another risks causing an even greater rift between these warring factions.
Originating as a Broadway production, Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) is the second motion-picture adaptation of the celebrated musical, the first having originated in 1961 under the direction of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The 2021 version contains plenty of homages to its film and stage forebears, the costuming being such an example – colours help to distinguish where the loyalties of the characters lie, with the Sharks being dressed in warmer colours like reds and oranges, while the Jets typically wear blue clothing.
Another, more obvious link is the soundtrack, originally composed by Leonard Bernstein with Stephen Sondheim, and re-arranged here by David Newman. None of the songs contained within have lost their charm nor their infectiousness, so even those who’ve never seen West Side Story before are bound to recognise iconic numbers like “Maria”, “Tonight” and “America”. And further connection is made through Rita Moreno, the 1961 film’s Anita, who in Spielberg’s version plays the role of Valentina, a gender-swapped Doc – the shopkeeper who mentors Tony.
Although adapting a six-decade-old musical may seem a retrograde step for a legend like Spielberg, the director does plenty to keep the material fresh. For one, it atones for the lack of representation in Wise & Robbins’ production by casting actors with Puerto Rican, Latin-American and Hispanic heritage as the Sharks – actors like Rachel Zegler, who shines in her film debut as Maria; David Alvarez as Maria’s hot-headed brother Bernardo; and Ariana DeBose, rightfully tipped as the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actor gong at this month’s Academy Awards.
In recent months, much of the criticism surrounding West Side Story has involved Ansel Elgort in the lead role of Tony. Although not as insufferable as some commentators are suggesting him to be – his performance isn’t half bad, and his singing is rather impressive – Elgort’s presence is something of a sore-point for the film, given the allegations of assault and grooming of a minor that linger over him. But even if said allegations can be ignored, the fact remains that Elgort doesn’t possess the natural charisma of, say, a young Hugh Jackman or Ryan Gosling to carry the role of Tony.
Such a casting decision speaks to Spielberg’s lack of experience when it comes to directing musicals, which is evident elsewhere in his West Side Story too. Although there is a flamboyance to proceedings, it’s not consistent, with some scenes possessing a level of dourness that is endemic of Spielberg’s recent output; additionally, the film has a weird placement of songs – for instance, one upbeat number sung by Maria and her fellow Sharks takes place immediately following the death of a major character.
Problems like this may explain why West Side Story wasn’t the hit that 20th Century Studios hoped it would be. The Omicron wave has undeniably had an impact as well, yet in this reviewer’s eyes, Musical Fatigue is the reason for this picture’s shunning by the masses. Recently, there’s been a saturation of musicals not witnessed since the genre’s heyday, with Spielberg’s film arriving within months of films such as Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen, Disney’s Encanto, Sony’s Vivo, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick… BOOM! and John M. Chu’s In the Heights.
Talking of the latter, one of the more pointed traits Spielberg’s West Side Story shares with Chu’s In the Heights is a substantial amount of Spanish dialogue, none of which is translated by text – the normal practice in this medium. Such an approach is fine in the United States, where Spanish is spoken or at least learnt by most of its inhabitants; but in a country like Australia – where most people don’t speak Spanish, nor are exposed to it in their everyday life – most viewers would benefit from the so-called barrier of subtitles to understand what is being said.
Yet even with the lack of English translations, and other gripes besides, West Side Story easily ranks as the best musical of 2021. There’s a vibrancy to the choreography and visuals that is lacking in most contemporary live-action musicals, the decades-old numbers barely need updating, and the story remains as charged, moving and timely as it was all those years ago. More importantly, the film is comforting proof that Steven Spielberg still has that magic touch, even as he enters his sixth decade working in the industry.
What’s here is more than remake of a renowned musical. With a terrific cast and welcome throwbacks, this is a vibrant adaptation that pays tribute to its originators whilst doing more than enough to differentiate itself for the better. And of course, it boasts the direction of a venerable artist who rarely ever falters – one can only hope that West Side Story isn’t the last musical to be directed by the Great Man.
West Side Story is currently streaming on Disney+.