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Movie Review: West Side Story dir Steven Spielberg


West Side Story 2021 - dir: Steven Spielberg

In 1961 Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins co-directed a big screen musical version of Leonard Bernstein’s popular Broadway production of West Side Story. The story is basically an update of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet set in mid 50’s New York west side, a multi-racial blue-collar neighbourhood presided over by ethnic gangs.

Shot in 70mm and starring then rising young stars Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, (Elvis pulled out), with a vivacious Rita Moreno, (who also has a new role in the remake), and George Chakiris, whom both earned support Oscars for their efforts. The film won a total of 10 Academy Awards including picture and is highly regarded as one of the best movie musicals made.

Master film maker Steven Spielberg had always wanted to make a complete movie musical and apparently based the story around the original source book by Arthur Laurents. Spielberg has delivered a grittier and more realistic representation of gang rivalry. Of course, there is the terrific Bernstein/Sondheim song score to go along with it, so Spielberg could embellish his creative and imaginative side amongst all the drama.

Tony, (Ansel Elgort), has just been released from juvey for mercilessly beating up a kid in a gang fight and almost killing him. Tony is part of The Jets, a gang of white low-class kids, and they are in constant conflict over territory with The Sharks, a gang of Puerto Ricans. Tony needs to get his life back on track as he didn’t like the person he was becoming, while his best friend Riff, (Mike Faist), is still stuck in his rut and would look up to Tony for guidance.

Maria, (a radiant Rachel Zegler), is the little sister of Bernardo, the leader of The Sharks. All around them change is happening. Old buildings are being torn down in preparation for new ones and their own future on the West Side hangs in the balance. The environment itself is mirroring something out of war-torn Dresden and The Jets and the Sharks, still holding onto archaic values, will soon become obsolete regardless. Tony meets Maria at a school dance and it's love at first sight. This sparks more tensions between Bernardo and The Jets as the relationship is seen as forbidden. A rumble is organised, and the loser is not to show their face around anymore.

Spielberg enhances this simple story with his magic touch and while the story may be familiar, he makes it fresh, alive and vibrant while still managing to pack an emotional wallop. The two leads make for an attractive first love is forever coupling and while it may appear puppy love whimsical, it is the anchor of the story.

Ariana DeBose who plays Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, won a supporting actress Oscar for her performance, (Rita Moreno’s original role), and she has a powerful moment depicting the ugly ethnic hatred that her “kind”, (as she previously references in song to Maria), is subjected too.

The film has energy, pizazz, style and oodles of atmosphere. In the hands of an expert filmmaker like Spielberg, it’s a film that can linger in the mind, even when the music has died.

Darren Cunningham, 
Bond Library Movie Reviewer

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