4.5 out of 5 stars
West Side Story is one of those cultural phenomena that managed to break through on multiple levels of entertainment over the decades. First released in 1957 on Broadway and then later developed into a film that was a box office smash and winner of multiple Academy Awards. Based on a story that was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and complemented by the music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. After 60 years since being in cinemas, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that it would be remade for a new generation of moviegoers. Then to have Steven Spielberg take on the project, this looks to be a winning combination, but will lightning strike again?
The Academy Award-winning director chose to stay loyal to the original adaptation with some minor character changes. He keeps the story set in 1950s New York where the cultural landscape of the Upper West Side of New York City was evolving. These Burroughs used to be influenced by European heritage, but now it was experiencing a rush of Puerto Rican immigration. Even though there were tensions between the new and old guards within the community, the Jets and the Sharks kept fighting in the streets. With their worlds all being under threat, these two gangs were trying to hold on to their familiar turf, while most of the buildings around them were being razed to make way for the new Lincoln Center along with upscale housing.
Painted against the battle between the two gangs is the romance between Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort). These star-crossed lovers must figure out how to commence their love for one another. Even though Maria is the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks and Tony is one of the founding members of the Jets. It is their relationship that leads to the eventual rumble between the two gangs. As racial tensions rise and the battle is about to come to fruition, the young lovers try to do all they can to stop the fight from starting. With iconic songs and captivating dance routines, this Shakespearian love story plays out with beautiful effect on the streets of New York City.
Many may not be aware that this project brings together an award-winning team of Spielberg and his screenwriter of choice, Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln). This winning combination of talent brings enough modern elements to this classic musical that helps to bring it into this era. All the while, they still manage to hold onto everything that makes this a beloved musical of the ages. Spielberg’s vision is stunning and immerses the audience in this constantly changing borough's streets. Then to have Kushner’s subtle finesse of the original screenplay provides dialogue that will connect with contemporary audiences while honouring the musical's original message. They both find this sweet spot of old and new along with Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet who oversees the choreography. He also manages to respect the stage production while capitalising on the talents of his cast in the dance sequences.
Yet, none of the writing, cinematography and choreography matters, if the cast does not deliver within this iconic story. Thankfully this talented team of performers fills every role with convincing form. Every supporting character from Mike Faist as Riff to Ariana DeBose as Anita adds to the multilayered cultural interchange. Then to give the nod to the original with the inclusion of Rita Moreno as the moral centre of the musical was a stroke of genius and keeps the heart of the original cast. This leaves us with considering the two actors who will make or break this production, Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort portraying Tony. A pair who manage to deliver with chemistry, vocal talent, dancing abilities, and acting chops to carry this film through to the tragic conclusion. One thing these young actors have over the original cast is that they can sing as well as act. (In the 1961 version, the lead actors had their vocal performances dubbed in and it still was a hit.)
If you have not seen the original, it would be worth watching it prior to seeing this version. The Academy Award winner was amazing for its day, but the 2021 version stands toe to toe in the salt factory with it and might even be better. West Side Story may be set in 1957, but this tale proves that it holds up throughout history. Between the tragic romance and the statement on race relations, Spielberg’s film speaks to this generation as well as it did when it opened on Broadway over six decades ago.
REEL DIALOGUE: Christianity, racism and discrimination
West Side Story is known for addressing topics that have been a part of America’s and the world’s social conscience since the beginning of mankind. Racial hatred and discrimination relate to something more profound than mere social injustices. These two issues are a deeply embedded insult to God and offence to the entirety of humanity.
It is not difficult for students of the Bible to see that racism runs counter to the message that can be read throughout its pages. The hatred depicted in this film and many actions taken do not represent Christianity or Jesus’ message. He died on the cross to redeem men and women of every race, colour, and ethnic background. The Saviour of the world lives today to show the eternal value of all people, regardless of nationality, race, development, appearance, or ability. His followers must embrace this aspect of the Bible’s message and live accordingly, while sharing this truth with all of the world without prejudice.
Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly. John 7:24
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28