West Side Story – Review

Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 36 minutes, Director – Steven Spielberg

In the build-up to an arranged fight between rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets tensions rise when former Jets member Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls in love with María (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez).

“Tonight, tonight, the world is wild and bright. Going mad, shooting sparks into space” the words certainly ring true surrounded by the mysticism of the balcony scene in Steven Spileberg’s take on West Side Story. While the camera makes it seem as if the only important elements in the scene are Tony (Ansel Elgort) and María (Rachel Zegler) there’s so much more silently going on in the initially quiet number that it all adds to the powerful impact of the piece. It’s the true spark that the film needs to truly get things going. Solidly proving their sentiments of “the world is only you and me” to be true.

After an atmospheric and visually brilliant opening 25-30 minutes exploring the feud between rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets it’s shown that the film’s heart lies with the central couple, helped by the fact that they can both clearly belt out a ballad/ tune. Known to be inspired by Romeo and Juliet the tragedy lies in the background of many of their interactions and conversations – burdened by their relationships to either gang, Tony being a former Jets member and María being the younger sister of fiery Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). Yet, the love that the two have from each other is felt and thanks to early numbers in their relationship such as María and Tonight doesn’t feel rushed in to as many takes on the star-crossed lovers sometimes can feel.

Alongside the basics of the traditional story there’s a traditional look and feel to the piece overall. Large scale musical numbers are choreographed in a style similar to classic Hollywood productions, of course, most notably the 1961 adaptation of this very musical. It adds to the overall feel of the film and the impact of early dance battles, making the eventual fight arranged between the two gangs seem even more messy, all caught with the modern sensibility of Spielberg’s gliding and effortlessly sweeping camera. You’re brought into the world and scenario of each song with ease with many feeling like pure celebrations. Numbers such as Gee, Officer Krupke and America (led by an excellent Ariana DeBose having an infectiously great time as Bernardo’s partner, and María’s friend, Anita) are emphasised by their ensemble nature; with each cast member helping to make each song work with the film and yet feel like its own individual piece. Something different from the last song in style and layout, yet still equally enjoyable.

It all lies in the build-up to the eventual fight. Even after loud ensemble numbers demonstrating the threat posed to everyone there’s a real sense of tension and suspense in the darker, quieter moments right before the face-off. We know it’s going to happen, the film has made sure of this, yet we feel as if it could go any way. Both in terms of who will come out of it and just what will happen to the pair of lovers that do indeed create the beating heart of the film in terms of their relationship. Their scenes together, or even simply thinking about each other in something like I Feel Pretty, strike a lighter more heartening tone than the much more dramatic, yet still stylised, interactions of people feuding for a place to call home. Feeling threatened by each other on what they see as their own personal terrain they feel threatened by and unaccepting towards those different to them. It all mixes together to capture the true sense of worry that everyone feels on the long and eventual night.

Such themes make for a current and relevant feel to this almost 65 year old musical, helped by a handful of other changes such as character Anybodys (Iris Menas) being openly trans instead of simply being viewed as a tomboy in most other versions of the musical, alongside being given a slight bit more screen time. It adds to a feeling of modernity caught within the narrative elements of the film which, once the seed is properly planted, flows with ease and keeps you in place almost until the very end. Thing stake a slight turn in the final few minutes but perhaps this is an effect of the time spent in the gradual build-up exploring the world of the film in the early stages of the first act. Regardless this is still a thoroughly engaging piece of swirling emotions which Spielberg plays with, often without you realising, in ways in which only he can. Toying, alongside Janusz Kamiński, with the cinematography for extra effect when it comes to the visual power of the musical and dance numbers – some pushing you back in your seat in both satisfaction and impression.

Through joy, celebration, threat, worry and the all-important central heartfelt bond there’s a true mixture of emotion’s within Steven Spielberg’s take on West Side Story. It’s handled well thanks to the performances and the pocket worlds that the musical numbers create within the larger world of the overall piece. Expanding the detail and simply bringing you further in to the detailed and quick flow of the film there’s a lot to like and get caught up in. All while you’re still being quietly, unconsciously, reminded of the tragedy that might lie ahead for multiple characters, not just Tony and María. It’s a traditional story, a film that looks back to more traditional Hollywood studio musicals, both within a work of modern leaning, attitudes, relevance and ideas. Captured within Spielberg’s gliding camerawork that moves as elegantly as a handful of the dances and the celebratory, proclamatory musical numbers that sometimes you can’t help but smile at.

After building up the eventually tense rivalry between the Sharks and Jets the main seed is planted to allow the Tony and María of Spielberg’s visually brilliant West Side Story to flourish, capturing the heart in their romance and bringing you in to the celebratory and joyful world, boosted with each musical number.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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