West Side Story (M) - 156 minutes
A masterful adaptation of the 1957 quintessential musical, Steven Spielberg has crafted a searing drama from teen discontent.
While remaining faithful to its origins, importantly West Side Story has cast only culturally appropriate actors in the roles of the Puerto Ricans.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story is set in the mid 1950s in a rundown neighbourhood in the upper west side of Manhattan.
It is the turf occupied by two teenage gangs – the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – that can’t stand each other.
Both are full of bravado and don’t respect the authority of the police.
They regularly beat up on one another.
One of the co-founders of the Jets, Tony (Ansel Elgort), spent a year in jail for the punishment he dished out to another rival gang member, but he used his time inside to reflect on what he did.
By his own admission, he came close to killing his adversary and that now troubles him.
Problem is, Tony’s hot-headed Jets’ co-founder Riff (Mark Faist) hasn’t learnt any such lesson and organises a winner takes all clandestine turf showdown with the Sharks.
The stakes are ratcheted up considerably by two factors.
The first is that Riff gets his hands on a gun, which can only spell trouble.
The second involves a chance meeting between Tony and the Sharks’ leader Bernardo’s (David Alvarez) sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a mixed dance, where they fall hard for one another.
Bernardo, who is in a long-term live-in relationship with Anita (Ariana DaBose), shares an apartment with her and Maria.
He demands that Maria only date her “own kind” and is incensed when he spots her with Tony at the dance.
Even though Tony implores Riff to call off the rumble, he has no intention of doing so.
Meanwhile, Bernardo – a boxer – is itching to confront Tony, while Maria is desperate for Tony to avoid the clash.
Everything about Spielberg’s representation of West Side Story oozes class and polish.
He has lost none of the theatricality, but added dramatic layers with his execution.
The choreographed song and dance numbers are a delight to watch and help propel the story.
The sets, settings and props flesh out the narrative arc.
Musically, several of the numbers stand out, including Somewhere, Tonight, Maria, America, I Feel Pretty and Gee, Officer Krupke.
With a pure singing voice and expressive acting performance, Rachel Zegler shines as Maria.
I also appreciated Ariana DaBose’s portrayal of hardworking Anita, looking to better her station in life.
There are many Spanish exchanges without subtitles in the film, adding to its authenticity.
Those who don’t speak the language may not understand exactly what is being said in these instances, but the general meaning is never in doubt.
Spielberg has done himself proud in his remake of one of the best musicals of all time.
Rated M, West Side Story scores an 8½ out of 10.