60 years after the release of the Oscar winning classic we now have West Side Story 2.0 and one of Steven Spielberg’s favourite musicals and it’s him who has boldly taken the opportunity to do his version. Famously based on Romeo & Juliet the film replaces the dignity of the two noble houses with the gangs of all white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks led by Riff and Bernardo respectively and unlike the original Spielberg has rightly cast Puerto Rican actors .
Set against a 1958 derelict Upper West Side that’s being bulldozed for gentrification shown in a stunning opening crane shot that travels over the rubble and through the construction vehicles and it is the Jets who are trying to hold onto their territory against an influx of immigrant Puerto Ricans – the parallel with today is obvious though mercifully there’s no scenes of Nigel Farage in some Latino get up singing and dancing. White cops belligerently resent having to keep the peace and that they are even present at a school dance illustrates how high tensions are and how rough the neighbourhood so much so that the school magazine has an obituary column (ok we made up that last bit). It’s the school dance where a delusional teacher tries to get the two gangs to bond by dancing with each other with all the success of an anti-vaxxer protest outside a vaccination centre. It’s here that Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Marias (Rachel Zegler) from opposing sides set eyes on each other and are instantly attracted. Bernaransekdo (David Alvarfez) Maria’s over protective brother is vehemently against it and she has to covertly meet with Tony who himself is an ex-Jets gang member who served time in prison and keen not to return to the big house where he presumably was doing his best to avoid being the prison hoop-la ring. But it’s his friend Riff who has set up a fight to sort out once and for all the gang’s turf war but its Tony who does his best to prevent it especially when Riff has bought a gun for the dust up.
It’s a brave director who takes on a remake of a classic film but at least this time its Spielberg and he makes this version of West Side Story his own. Rightly avoiding the shot for shot mistake that Gus Van Sant made with his unnecessary remake of Psycho and instead combines real locations, sets and seamless digital enhancement. The songs have stood the test of time with ‘Tonight’ and ’I feel pretty’ are perfect and ‘America’ is utterly joyous.
His version of West Side Story veers more towards the stage version than perhaps the original film and despite Spielberg keeping his version in the 50’s its themes of racism, renovation projects, immigration and knife crime are as relevant today as they were back in the 1961film as well as a small nod to contemporary issues notably with a sexually ambiguous gang member which gives the film a contemporary feel. An energetic cast Spielberg has an exceptional Zegler as Maria and David Alvarez as her brother Bernardo and the trend for casting actors from the original in remakes continues with Rita Moreno who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and here is not limited to a fleeting cameo but appears here as Tony’s surrogate mum employing him in the shop she owns. Shot at around the same time as ‘In the Heights’ and in nearby locations too this version of West Side Story is the years best musical and awards surely beckon
Watch the West Side Story trailer HERE