Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ is a vital and vibrant remake of the 1957 original Broadway musical of the same name and its faithful 1961 film adaptation whose dramedy theme was famously based on William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet.
Set in early 1950, in the backdrop of the gentrification of the Upper West Side neighbourhood of Manhattan in New York City, the story concerns the feud between rival street gangs; The white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, each wanting to control the Upper West Side Neighbourhood.
The film begins with a witty flourish with members of the Sharks gang being taunted by the white gang because the turf that they’re fighting over is changing and shrinking beneath their feet.
Amidst their conflict, Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of the Shark leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) falls in love with Tony whom she fondly calls Anton (Ansel Elgort), after their paths cross on the dance floor. Their first meeting at the ball seems extremely staged and obligatory.
While they romance, she is unaware that Tony, freshly out of prison for killing another man, is the friend of the current Jet boss Riff (Mike Faist), and is the sworn enemy of her brother. But when she realises this, it is too late.
Bernardo is not happy that his sister is attracted to a gringo, a white American, and with their long-standing enmity with the Jets, he challenges Riff for a duel and insists that Riff invite Tony to the rumble.
During the fight, the situation goes out of control. And Bernardo and Riff are killed. And then the tragedy of errors concludes the drama just like in Romeo and Juliet.
This 156-minute script is engaging but very perfunctorily it spends a valuable amount of time on the songs and the general rambling of the working-class Puerto Ricans. In the bargain, the romance and the killings all appear obligatory.
On the performance front, every actor gives their sincere best. Elgort and Zegler make a brilliant pair but they lack on-screen chemistry. He is the ‘by-the-book’ type of guy, and she being spontaneous, does not reflect on screen, simply because they do not share much screen time together.
The only time you would invest while watching the film is during the scenes between Tony and Valentina, the widow of the drugstore owner who mentors Tony.
All the other actors are good dancers, and they fit their roles in the musical. In fact, the fight scenes too appear like a well-choreographed dance.
On a separate note, imagine what happens when you are in the company of a multi-language speaking crowd, and all of a sudden, a few speak in their own tongue, not bothering to translate the conversation for your benefit. It makes you feel like an unwanted guest.
The same is the case here when the Puerto Rican characters speak in Spanish. The spoken words are not translated and subtitled. Must say, it is a strange directorial choice. Much of the flavour of the film is lost with the missing subtitles.
Overall, this film is brilliantly mounted, with good production values, picture-perfect shots, seamless editing, and excellent music, but it lacks the exquisite ‘Steven Spielberg’ stamp on it.
Film: West Side Story
Duration: 156 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera, Iris Menas
–By Troy Ribeiro