In the hands of Steven Spielberg and scenarist Tony Kushner (Lincoln) an iconic Broadway musical and film adaptation from a golden age is spiritedly modified and revived for out times. Evan having a nostalgic glow with its original setting intact.
It’s hard to best a true original like West Side Story which boasted stylized complex choreography from co-director Jerome Robbins, but now the filmmaking eludes desaturated tones and high energy. Maybe the envelope could have been pushed a bit more at times, but it mostly marks its own territory with reverence.
Accounting for multicultural and sociological issues allows director and writer (through music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the just passed Stephen Sondheim) to plow into a subtext for razing on the Big Apple’s West Side to make way for a new Lincoln Center (as a whistle and overhead rumble shot indicate), reflected in occasional dialogue without subtitles and inclusive, appropriate casting.
Gentrification gains importance as gang rivalries are positioned on a varying landscape in what unfolds with the tragic inevitability of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet with hardly any lagging.
The Sharks are the Puerto Rican sect with native-run businesses threatening the Anglo Jets acting with vandalizing defiance (through dance) to retain their turf. What’s felt (like the recent invigorating In The Heights) to larger degree is the communal impact, for better or worse.
The characters realize their place in the place of progress even with their share of affectation and swagger. The splashy roles include the quick-tempered Riff filled with physicality by Mike Faist, the intense boxer in Bernardo as played by David Alvarez and the controlled, focused pragmatist Anita (Bernardo’s girlfriend) endowed with cogency by Ariana Debose.
An effortful turn from Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) shows in ex-Jets member and close friend of Riff, Tony aiming to be aggressive with more of a movie star than disheveled, delinquent appearance. Animosity has to be curbed after a year’s incarceration for his almost deadly part in a rumble. Agreeable melodic vocals from Elgort may atone for the character inadequacies that may have an effect on the chemistry with Bernardo’s younger sister Maria, afforded with wistful, gentle charm by notable newcomer Rachel Zegler. A resolute sensuality is expressed from innocence and in full-throated numbers like “I Feel Pretty.”
The developing personal relationships occur after the loss of a loved one with Anita acting as a loving big sister to Maria. Meanwhile, Riff tries to prod newly paroled poignant Tony into his former affiliation as he becomes gainfully employed at Doc’s drugstore run by Valentina (Rita Moreno, and Oscar-winner in the first film as Anita)
Moreno shines in what is more that a cameo though a poignant turn (with her own singing voice this time) especially in the elegiac paean ‘Somewhere’ formerly one after a baleful encounter by Tony and Maria. It would be remarkable to see the Puerto Rican-born American actress honored again long removed from arguably her crowning achievement. One cannot forget how the alterations include the character of Chino, played by Josh Andres Rivera, who’s very close with Bernardo though not a Shark. As he toils during the day to help fulfill his accounting aspirations at night school.
Spielberg and his craft contributors (including his usual lensing pro Janusz Kaminski) profess an elegance for those grand musicals with hyperrealism that fits his mastery of medium, say from his War of the Worlds remake or much earlier high-octane Indiana Jones adventures. In West Side Story a compelling relevance emerges with time-sensitivity even as a strapping resourcefulness locates much success without equaling the greatest of them.