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8 December 2021

Steven Spielberg’s sunny take on West Side Story

This is the highlight of what’s on at the movies this Christmas – but musical-averse audiences do have other options.

By Ryan Gilbey

This has not been a year to sing the praises of the screen musical. From the rudimentary (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) and the mawkish (Dear Evan Hansen) to the preposterous (Annette), most have been off-key. The recent loss of Stephen Sondheim brings the words “nail” and “coffin” to mind. Enter a new version of West Side Story (10 December). Sondheim was not yet 27 when he wrote the lyrics for Jerome Robbins’s 1957 reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, with music by Leonard Bernstein and book by Arthur Laurents. The 1961 movie was showered with Oscars. Now, a marginally grittier take on the material arrives courtesy of Steven Spielberg and the playwright Tony Kushner. That’s an awful lot of prestige for a film that needs to stay light on its feet.

For the most part it succeeds, even if authentic casting and contemporary allusions never quite provide a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why now?” Wrecking balls are swinging in Spielberg’s largely computer-generated vision of the late-1950s Upper West Side. Two gangs – the Jets, headed by Riff (Mike Faist), and their Puerto Rican enemies the Sharks, with Bernardo (David Alvarez) at the helm – are scrapping over an ever-shrinking patch of turf. Gentrification eats into the neighbourhood. “What are we if we ain’t got no territory?” asks one Jet forlornly.

From this jumble of broken concrete, snakes-and-ladders fire escapes and washing strung out like bunting emerges a romance between Bernardo’s sister María (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort), an ex-Jet trying to go straight. The risk that these winsome lovers will be overshadowed by the surrounding hullabaloo is one that Spielberg and Kushner attempt to minimise by making Tony an ex-con. Casting Elgort, however, proves counter-productive. He is a treat for the eyes so long as he’s pouting. Ask him to convey inner turmoil and he looks like a Jelly Baby throwing a strop.

The rest of the cast offer compensation, especially Ariana DeBose as María’s best pal (and Bernardo’s squeeze) Anita – the role for which Rita Moreno won an Oscar in 1961. Moreno, now 90, turns up as Valentina, a widow of a local shopkeeper (Doc in the original) and wise counsel to Tony. Her appearance makes possible the strong scene in which she comes to Anita’s rescue, essentially saving her younger self from a mauling by the Jets. It can’t help but be deeply affecting in the context of the sexual abuse Moreno suffered as a rising star in Hollywood.

The joint impulses to toughen up the text while honouring the original are not always compatible. If the Jets are going to bandy around phrases such as “dickless wonder” and “shrivel-dick”, and if Valentina can accuse them outright of being “rapists”, then it is hardly necessary to preserve the euphemistic insult (“Krup you!”) at the end of the comedy number “Gee, Officer Krupke”. A jangling tension still arises, though, from the contrast between the rough-and-tumble milieu and the soaring choreography, not least when the Jets’ macho strutting first gives way to blasé leaps and pirouettes.

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How this will look to fresh eyes is another matter. Thrilling, I should think. You don’t need to know that the foot-stomping “America” was originally staged on a rooftop at night to enjoy the same number being dragged high-kicking and screaming into the afternoon sun, where it becomes a riot of swishing, swirling canary-yellow dresses into which Spielberg gradually introduces streaks of red like a painter mixing colours on a palette. Perhaps “Why now?” is the wrong question in the face of such a stirring enterprise. Better to ask: “Why not?”

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Musical-averse audiences have other options. In the comedy Don’t Look Up (10 December; Netflix 14 December), Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence try to alert an oblivious world to a deadly comet. Tom Holland goes web-slinging in Spider-Man: No Way Home (15 December). Will previous incumbents Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield swing by? Fans think so. Maggie Gyllenhaal directs a tense adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter (cinemas 17 December; Netflix 31 December) with Olivia Colman confronting unhappy memories of motherhood on holiday in Greece. Stephen Graham is a chef having a hellish night in Boiling Point (29 December), which was shot in one 92-minute take, while Julia Ducournau’s award-winning Titane (31 December), a violent phantasmagoria about a woman impregnated by a car, makes David Cronenberg’s Crash look like Driving Miss Daisy. Be careful on those roads!

West Side Story
Dir: Steven Spielberg,
10 December

[see also: The best films of 2021]

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special