Iris Menas

West Side Story

16/12/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Though an admitted fan of musicals, Steven Spielberg has never attempted one: until now, that is.

It’s perhaps typical of the man that he’s taken on one of the most acclaimed musicals in history and he’s quick to point out that this reboot isn’t based on Robert Wise and Jerome Robin’s 1961 motion picture, but on the original stage version, created by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. In essence, the great director hasn’t changed so very much. The setting is still New York, some time in the 1950s, but here, we’re made aware from the opening sequence that the neighbourhood is undergoing major demolition in order to accommodate the building of the swishy new Lincoln Centre. The place is already doomed.

Spielberg has also settled some worries from the original film version, where white actors wore brown makeup in order to look ‘authentically’ Puerto Rican. He’s also added a non-binary character called Anybodys (Iris Menas) and has left some stretches of Spanish dialogue un-subtitled, relying on non-Spanish-speaking audiences being able to work out what’s actually being said. But mostly he’s left it to the sweeping cinematography of Hanusz Kaminsky and of course that series of solid gold songs to carry us through a world of finger-clicking dance routines and declarations of eternal love.

There’s part of me that wishes he’d tinkered a bit more than he has. But still…

I won’t waste time on needless plot details. If you’re familiar with Romeo and Juliet, you pretty much know what to expect.

The Romeo figure here is Tony (Ansel Elgort), recently released from prison after one punchup too many and literally towering over his diminutive love interest, Maria (Rachel Zegler). But of course, Tony is a former member of The Jets gang, while Maria’s brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), is the leader of their Puerto Rican rivals, The Sharks, who hate all Jets as a matter of principle – and the feeling is mutual.

It can only end in bloodshed.

West Side Story 2021 is handsomely mounted and uniformly well acted – Ariana DeBose as Anita is a particular standout – and it’s also lovely to see Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film) cast here as Valentina, the owner of the local drug store, from where she delivers her own haunting version of Tonight. But the film is at its best during the big ensemble numbers – a rousing rendition of America, played out on the busy streets of New York is fabulous and the climactic rumble between the two gangs, in a deserted salt warehouse is also visually striking.

What’s more, Spielberg even manages to make the cheesy I Feel Pretty – a song that has previously brought me out in hives – much more palatable, by the simple expedient of setting it in the flashy department store where Maria and her girl friends work – as cleaners.

So why does the film fail to thrill me? It could be, I suppose, that there are simply too few surprises. Perhaps if I were seeing the story for the very first time, I’d be more excited, but apart from some judicious airbrushing and those magnificent production values, I’m suffering from a bad case of ‘seen it all before.’ Viewers who weren’t even born in 1961 will doubtless have an entirely different view of it.

In the end, I admire it… but I don’t love it.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney