Review: Steven Spielberg's film of West Side Story is impressive

West Side Story. M, 156 minutes. Four stars.

Remakes can be controversial but if they're done well and bring something new, I'm for them. Stage musicals are often revived, often in markedly different productions, so why not movie musicals?

When it was announced Steven Spielberg was going to direct a new film adaptation of West Side Story, it piqued my interest. The classic 1957 Broadway musical was written by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and was conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

West Side Story was based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The warring families were replaced by New York street gangs, the "native" American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, with the title characters represented by former Jet Tony and Maria, the sister of Bernardo who's the leader of the Sharks. The cross-cultural romance brings disquiet and, ultimately, destruction.

The show, an enduring success, was made into a film a few years later that won 10 Oscars. It had many good points - it preserved much of Jerome Robbins' choreography and had fine supporting performances from Rita Moreno and George Chakiris - but a particularly stiff Tony in Richard Beymer and a lot of dubbing. Nowadays, the non-Latin casting of the Puerto Rican characters is a little offputting.

In musicals, it's not all about the director: other collaborators like the choreographer and music director have vital roles and do well here. At a time when film musicals are highly variable in quality, this is one of the good ones.

A tense moment from West Side Story. Picture: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios ht

A tense moment from West Side Story. Picture: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios ht

This version is scripted by Tony Kushner and makes some changes - for example, Tony has recently been released from prison after assaulting a man and some of the Puerto Rican characters are fleshed out more.

Spielberg's version uses elements from the earlier film - like the challenge-dance version of America - and also makes its own changes - Cool is now a song for Tony. They work fine.

Justin Peck's choreography is occasionally reminiscent of Robbins' work but is often more naturalistic - movement rather than dance. But big moments like the dance at the gym and America still make their mark.

Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is impressively varied - from bright hues to drab colours - but there's far too much lens flare, including in some intimate moments, that's distracting rather than atmospheric.

Tony is probably the most difficult role - a tough street gang leader and a wistful romantic make for a difficult combination. Ansel Elgort is better than Beymer - he can sing and dance - but he, too, seems a little underwhelming. He doesn't seem like a hoodlum - but it's not a bad try.


The other major cast members are excellent - Mike Faist as Jet leader Riff, Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo, but some of the secondary characters don't make as much of an impact as they could have.

Rita Moreno, who won a supporting actress Oscar as Anita in the 1961 film, plays a new character, Valentina. She's the widow of pharmacist Doc and plays the same role that character did originally, employing and counselling Tony and watching the tragedy unfold.

Her rendition of Somewhere is understated and poignant and underscores the story's point about the futility and destructiveness of violence and hatred.

Spielberg and company also play up how futile the violence is by having the action unfold in a neighbourhood that's undergoing gentrification - soon all the poor will be gone, the contested "turf" taken away.

This is an impressive new version of a classic musical. While its period setting means some aspects are dated, the drama and music still work and the themes remain all too current.

This story Spielberg gives new life to classic musical first appeared on The Canberra Times.