West Side Story – a sharp yet gritty updated adaptation of the beloved musical

Posted on 19 December 2021
By Roisin Gordon
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Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s most influential directors, who has tackled many different genres throughout his career, from thrilling sci-fi adventures to hard hitting historical dramas.

Now he has taken on the challenge of directing his first musical, and not just any musical but the Stephen Sondheim classic West Side Story.

Considering that the 1961 film has legions of fans, it feels like a tough act for Spielberg to follow, but fear not as his adaptation of the musical is just as good, if not an improvement over its predecessor and is another classic to add to his impressive filmography.

Many people may feel split over which film adaptation is better, but they both have a very different yet distinct feel to them. The 1961 film feels more theatrical and stagey, whilst this version is definitely a lot more grittier and violent yet never loses the energy and sharpness of the musical numbers.

Despite the story taking place in the 1950’s, many of the themes feel contemporary for today’s audience. The opening pans across a derelict neighbourhood, as we see the Jets group together to vandalise a Puerto Rican mural that leads to a brawl between the two gangs.

It helps to establish what drives the tension between the two gangs, with the Jets angered by the changes in their neighbourhood and the Sharks enraged by the racial prejudice they face despite wanting to make a good home for themselves.

A nice little touch to the film is that whenever the Puerto Rican characters speak Spanish amongst themselves, the dialogue isn’t subtitled for the audience. Showing its respect towards their language and wonderful Latina cast.

The musical numbers are spectacular, which are brilliantly choreographed by Justin Peck with the performances never being overly theatrical but doesn’t lose the rawness from the actors.

From the upbeat and feel-good America that turns into a celebration for the Puerto Rican community to the softer ballad Tonight where Maria and Tony confirm their love for each other, each number is a rollercoaster of emotions from start to finish.

The relationship between Tony and Maria is usually the weakest part of the story, seeing as many of the supporting characters are more interesting and especially how Maria chooses to run away with Tony despite the fact he murdered her brother.

However, the chemistry between Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler makes it endurable and they have some good scenes to work with.

Ansel Elgort gives a respectable performance as Tony, who in this version is a lot more war-torn but still has a lot of heart to him. We learn at the beginning of the film that he is out on parole and determined to turn over a new leaf.

In one scene he expresses to Maria that whilst he no longer approves of the ways of his criminal buddies, he does empathise with them considering that they come from broken homes and unstable upbringings. This goes to show how much he is affected by his past actions and how his time in prison has changed him.

Whilst Elgorts’ vocals feel a little weaker compared to his co-stars, he carries himself through the musical numbers wonderfully.

Rachel Zegler shines in her film debut as Maria, who brings a sweet yet feisty spirit to her portrayal that endears you to her. Zegler performs the musical numbers so effortlessly, with her angelic voice and it is very clear that she has a promising future in Hollywood ahead of her.

The supporting cast is equally terrific with standout performances from Mike Faist and David Alvarez as gang leaders Riff and Bernardo respectively; both displaying enough charisma and bravado to lead their gangs through dance-fighting and their tragic ending will leave you heartbroken.

Ariana DeBose is captivating in the role of Anita, as a passionate and determined young woman who keeps the hot-headed Bernardo grounded and acting as a confidante towards Maria.

DeBose easily proves herself to be one of the strongest performers in the film, as you see her go from being optimistic about life in America to gradually being disillusioned by the violence that surrounds her.

Rita Moreno is beloved for her Oscar winning role as Anita in the 1961 adaptation, but here she returns as a different character- Valentina, the drugstore owner.

Moreno brings a quiet dignity to the part and has some great scenes with Elgort to work with, as she tries to help Tony move onto a better life. Her rendition of Somewhere is guaranteed to bring you chills when you hear it.

West Side Story is another triumph for Steven Spielberg and hopefully this won’t be his last effort at making a musical.

Purple Revolver Rating: 4/5 – A grand and spectacular musical