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West Side Story: Spielberg’s masterful re-interpretation of a classic ★★★★

By Ellen McLean

The original 1961 film production of West Side Story is much loved by film and musical  theatre audiences alike. Bursting with iconic choreography and a remarkable score to accompany the moving story of the star-crossed lovers, it has gone down in history as a ‘classic’. However, in many ways it is a film of its time, tainted with uncomfortable stereotypes of the Latinx community and other dated aspects. Whilst the remake cannot remedy all these faults, it is certainly a lovable movie musical masterpiece, with a significantly more authentic feel.

The opening sequence of Spielberg’s West Side Story immediately sets you in the mood for the forthcoming cinematic experience, as opposed to the much more balletic feel of the original. There is something quite emotional about experiencing Spielberg tell such a familiar story in such a sure-footed and accomplished way. He uses all his experience to draw you in with sweeping camera shots in an involving rendering of 1950s New York. The sets feel real, placing you right into the heart of the action. 

The script has been reworked by Tony Kushner to give a different emphasis and more clarity about motivations. In particular, much-needed improvements are provided for the Puerto Rican characters, including appropriate use of Spanish, gladly without subtitles, for dramatic and authentic effect.

Of course, you can tell that Spielberg loves the original too, filling the rendition with much-appreciated nods and tributes to the classic, though it never feels like a replica; it wonderfully interprets the musical in its own way.

The cast overall is excellent. Rachel Zegler gives a faultless performance of Maria, capturing the character’s innocent yet strong presence. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that Zegler landed the role at just 16 following an open casting call on Twitter. Along with Ansel Elgort, the pair certainly bring the youthful energy perhaps missing in the original film’s leading couple.

Further highlights from the cast include the role of Anita, skilfully mastered by Ariana DeBose, and Rita Morena (who played Anita in the original film) as Valentina. The addition of new character Valentina, created especially for Morena in this adaptation, gives enhanced depth to the character of Tony.

However, I did feel somewhat let down by Elgort in the role of Tony. He lacked the musicality required for Bernstein’s unmatched score, especially alongside Zegler’s truly stunning voice and the equally strong vocals of the other leads. At moments his portrayal was completely captivating. At others it felt as though he was simply the token ‘star’ actor amongst an otherwise perfectly cast production.

That aside, there is no denying that the film is a triumph. It successfully captures all the elements that made the original so special, whilst giving it the deeper context it deserves.

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