Respectfully adapted and lushly scored, dreamily romantic and heartbreakingly moving, the new movie adaptation of evergreen classic West Side Story gleams with the splendour of mega-budget movie magic that is deployed with the utmost of respect for the immaculate source material.
Did we need a new movie adaptation of West Side Story? Not really.
Are we glad to have this soaring cinematic achievement? With the quality of the result, it is basically impossible to say no.
Esteemed film director Steven Spielberg tries his hand at a movie musical, simply because he can, and the result is a screen adaptation for the ages, imaginatively and yet faithfully adapted with an eye on both the 1957 stage musical and the multi-Academy Award winning 1961 movie.
If the lean economy of Arthur Laurents’ stage book is lost in Tony Kushner’s generously expanded screenplay, the gain in added depth and additional attachment to characters seems well worthwhile. Kushner has enriched the characters and story from within, seemingly adding nothing at all and yet actually adding all manner of myriad minutiae and devilish details.
Setting the action in a dangerously decaying Upper West Side, Spielberg ignites a ticking time bomb with the demolition of densely populated tenements yielding to the shiny new Lincoln Center.
Those who have listened to the glorious soundtrack recording of the new West Side Story will be aware the that the sumptuous music of Leonard Bernstein and the pithy lyrics of recently departed master Stephen Sondheim have been retained and preserved with apposite reverence.
Spielberg gives the songs room to breathe, completely eschewing the rock video clip vibe of many a modern movie musical. If Justin Peck contributes choreography that is somewhat less all-consuming than that of Jerome Robbins, the adjustment can be accepted as a nod to modern tolerance of dance on screen. Most impressively, the dance is immaculately filmed, with an abundance of full body shots and long sweeping takes.
Moving “Gee, Officer Krupke” to an earlier position (effectively placing it in act one), Spielberg and Kushner have the second half of the story hurtle tightly from “The Rumble” to the chilling “Finale” with barely space for breath.
For the first time ever, Tony is part of “Cool,” to thrilling effect. “One Hand, One Heart” has a gorgeous setting in an uptown chapel. “America” is the jewel in the crown of the new film, ever building in intensity as it spills joyously out onto the streets of late-1950s New York.
Rachel Zegler stands out as dear Maria, looking every bit the doe-eyed innocent teen and singing with requisite, if not operatic, sweetness. Ansel Elgort errs slightly on the side of stiffness yet breathes believable life into Tony, the role now somewhat deepened with a backstory of recent incarceration for violence. Together, the pair delivers a swoon-worthy romance building to a deeply moving finale.
Ariana DeBose is reliably thrilling as firebrand Anita. David Alvarez makes for a suitably steamy an compellingly commanding Bernardo. Even with negligible backstory, Mike Faist adds layers of tension to resolute Jets leader, Riff.
The beating heart of the new movie, Rita Moreno brings gentle dignity to Valentina, widow of Doc (of Doc’s Drugstore). Softly crooning “Somewhere,” with no dream ballet in sight, Moreno carries the hopes and dreams of us all.
West Side Story plays in previews 17-19 December 2021 in cinemas Australia. West Side Story opens in wide release in cinemas in Australia on 26 December 2021.
Photos: Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox