Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is that curious kind of remake: impressively put together, but so reverentially similar to the original it doesn’t quite warrant the effort.
Presented as a reimagining of the stage show, but really in thrall to the 1961 film by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story ’21 has some spectacular dance numbers and, of course, the benefit of those incredible songs: clearly, these ingredients work. But as an update it remains peculiarly old-fashioned, and the tweaks that have been made are hit and miss, shuffling an equal number of steps forwards and backwards.
If you’re not familiar, it’s basically a musical Romeo and Juliet, set among rival gangs in ’50s New York, specifically the Upper West Side (this version emphatically sets it in the rubble of a slum clearance making way for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts). The white, low-prospect Jets are in a turf war with the Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants who have made a home in New York. The Jets are headed up by Riff (Mike Faist) while Bernardo (David Alvarez) leads the Sharks. The star-crossed lovers of the piece are Tony (Ansel Elgort), a Jet looking to go straight after a stint in prison, and María (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo’s sister.
History repeats itself with Tony and María being overshadowed somewhat by Bernardo and his partner Anita (Ariana DeBose): both those actors possess such a magnetic intensity, they’re missed whenever they’re not on-screen. Zegler – who has since booked roles in Shazam! 2 and Disney’s live-action Snow White – is also quite a find. She makes for an extremely appealing María, all preternaturally huge eyes and smile. Elgort’s casting is less successful. While he handles the singing and dancing perfectly well, he doesn’t quite cut it dramatically. Tony’s tough-guy past doesn’t convince, and he also fumbles a key emotional moment.
It leads to one key problem with the film, which is that it’s hard to engage with the central couple’s plight, diminishing the impact of all the political commentary built around it. The songs do a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting, but the big screen is less forgiving of Tony and María’s extremely condensed relationship than the stage. It doesn’t help matters that the couple’s standout song from the 1961 film, 'Somewhere', is gifted to another performer here.
One homage to the original that does pay off is the recasting of Rita Moreno (previously Anita), as this film’s Doc equivalent: Tony’s employer and substitute parental figure. Once again, she’s a standout, even though she’s playing in a different register. Don’t be surprised if she picks up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (again).
A key update is more authentic Latinx casting. In terms of the supporting cast, Spielberg and casting lead Cindy Tolan have done a great job of finding faces that feel authentically of the ’50s setting. The big underlying themes – of race, gender, gentrification – are brought to the fore and underlined in Tony Kushner's script, with mixed results. While some will no doubt admire its forthright approach, equally the hand-holding can feel intrusive.
With one of the great songbooks to play with, hung on the architecture of a Shakespeare great, in many ways, West Side Story can’t go too far wrong. Given his recent passing, there’s no better time to celebrate the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim (paired here with the music of Leonard Bernstein), which range from cleverly playful to pure poetry. If you’re able to leave the cinema without bursting into song, well done.
Among the set-piece highlights are the mixer where the two communities are forced to mingle, and the performance of 'America' that engulfs the streets. But for all its technical virtuosity and clear glee in restaging classic numbers, West Side Story ’21 never entirely justifies its existence. The real love story here isn’t Tony and María, it’s Spielberg and the material.
By modernising elements without drastically shaking up the whole, it draws attention to some of the film’s conspicuously old-fashioned elements. Sixty years of history allows the original film some slack for some of its shortcomings, like the aforementioned inauthentic casting. But time is also forgiving of the sanitised take on gang culture and simplistic character motivations. Those elements just don’t ring as true in 2021. For all the finger-snapping, this West Side Story doesn’t quite click.
West Side Story is in cinemas from December 10. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading our way over the next few months.