Credit: Polygon

Review: West Side Story

By Marine Ourahli

Marine reflects on the 2021 reboot of a thematically rich musical classic, as re-imagined by prolific director Steve Spielberg.

After the 1961 Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ film, West Side Story became a true classic of the musical genre, and the newest adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s musical success by Steven Spielberg stuns. I have to say that I have never been a great admirer of original vision, so I entered without any great expectations for this update. Moreover, the trailer had cooled me down not by its quality but by its casting, finding in the main role Ansel Elgort (actor of Baby Driver and recent accussee of sexual misconduct). So I arrived at the cinema with some apprehension, experiencing surprise as I witnessed the majesty that unfolded before my eyes. 

We can immediately note the beauty of the film’s images, especially the lighting, which we owe to Steven Spielberg’s regular director of photography, Janusz Kaminski. Light is at the center of the cinematography, it is omnipresent and gives its imagery an unreal dimension. The story is nuanced: tragic in parts, but also incredibly bright and hopeful. The film oozes thoughtful creative choices, with each shot carefully considered and different from the last. The camera moves around an expansive late 1950s New York set, capturing the vibrant soul of the musical. 

Spielberg does not imitate, he recreates. The script has undergone many alterations, allowing space to offer a modern perspective. The major change made was the more positive depiction of the rival gang to the Jets (the White Americans): The Sharks, which comprised all Puerto Rican young men. The Jets are made up of Italian, Irish, and Polish boys. Here we have an opposition between the new immigrants and the old ones in New York within an environment of increased gentrification, as the American Dream is fiercely fought over. Spielberg depicts a real turf war with some virtuosity. Thus the film carries a certain political discourse. The script also subtly incorporates current issues such as trans-identity and rape culture (which seems misplaced with Ansel Elgort in the cast). The changes Spielberg makes allow characters to be fleshed out and well-developed, as we see most prominently within the character of Tony. The addition of Valentin, played by the actress Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original film, is salient. The casting is sound, and notably Maria, played by breakout star Rachel Zegler, is striking. The substantial negative weight it carries for me personally is not simply the presence of Ansel Elgort, but his acting being quite below the excellence of the rest of the cast.

Spielberg shows in this film the extent of his talents and his love of the original material, proving that you can birth a new perspective to an already well known story. 


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