West Side Story (2021) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Review by Andrea Carnevali
An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. Out in the cinema from 10 December.
Steven Spielberg has been waiting to make a musical throughout his whole career. Apparently he considered converting his 1941 into a one, halfway through production.
Also somewhere in a parallel universe there’s probably a musical version of Hook from 1991 (the version the Spielberg really wanted to make.. with Michael Jackson in the lead. In fact composer John Williams had already written eight songs for it, until “creative differences” sunk that version).
In both instances those films might have turned out better than they actually did, but that’s a discussion for some other time…
We did get a brief but tantalising glimpse into what a Spielberg musical would look like in the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. Even then we knew he could do it… but we would have to wait 37 years to finally see the results of him trying.
Those who know me also know too well about my (excessively freaky) passion for the director’s body of work. Jaws, Raiders, Indy, Empire of Sun, Schindler’s List are just some of my favourite films of his (and in general), and that’s without counting all the ones he produced over the years (I’ll just say… Back to the Future and leave it there). Yes, he can be a bit sentimental at times, but surely there are worse sins. And don’t we all need a little bit of sentimentality nowadays?
The moment when I was able to talk to him during a Q&A at his Bridge of Spies premiere in London and tell him how much he means to me and how he ‘singlehandedly changed my life’ is still one of the most important moments of my life. But even I have to admit that what he made over the last 20 years or so has been rather underwhelming. Yes, technically marvellous, but indulgent, forgettable and at times suffering from a “multiple-ending” syndrome.
Now, a year after his original release date (courtesy of Covid), here comes his version of West Side Story, a film which, let’s be honest, nobody really needed. After all the original won ten Oscars in 1962 and to this day it remains the musical film with the most Academy wins, including Best Picture) Or at least I thought we didn’t need it. How wrong I was! And how happy I am to be proved wrong.
In fact, thinking about it, don’t I go to see new staged versions of plays we know all the times? How many Hamlets, or Midsummer Night’s Dreams, or Macbeths have there been?
I’m not citing Shakespeare by chance here: the original West Side Story is of course a beautiful retelling of the immortal Romeo & Juliet: that’s a pretty strong starting point for anything.
Spielberg’s film (Because this IS really HIS film: his fingerprints all over it) is a new interpretation of the play from 1957, rather than a remake of original film from 1961 (and if you know that film well, or the play in fact, you’ll enjoy this film even more): it is clearly a piece of work born out of passion for the source material, with so much love and vitality that it’s joy to watch.
It somehow manages to be both incredibly reverent to the source and yet by subtlety turning the story of territorial divide into one of racial divide, it makes it feel contemporary, relevant, fresh and exciting.
This is the kind of film that Hollywood was known for in its heyday: glitzy, colourful, grand, emotional and with ensemble cast to die for, which is certainly going to shake the imminent Award season. The costumes are breath-taking, the production design immaculate, the cinematography lush, rich and brilliant. All of them seem a sure bet win from where I stand. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Spielberg up there again on the stage for the third time.
Every decision he made both as a producer and director feels spot on, starting from the seemingly obvious one (and yet it took 60 years!) to actually cast Latino actors to play Puerto Ricans and ending with the decision to have the original Spanish dialogue without any subtitles: a very clever, brave (and yes, slightly PC) choice.
The cast is one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen in a long time, mostly made of unknowns with two noticeable exceptions: Ansel Elgort and the divine Rita Moreno. Rachel Zegler, here in her first screen role, has all the quality of a star in the making. She’s beautiful, fragile and strong, graceful and broken and wow she can sing! Famously Natalie Wood from the original movie, not only was darkened with makeup for not being too white (I know… different times) but was also dubbed by ghost-singer (is there such a term?) because she couldn’t really sing.
And talking about singing, every time a new song started (interesting to see them shuffle a bit throughout the film) you just can’t help being swept away.
Spielberg’s ability to place the camera always in the right spot and then move it so seamlessly and so naturally is really second to none, whether in Hollywood or anywhere else in the world, in my book. Here we get bird’s eye views, sweeping cranes, Dutch angles, dynamic movement, sometimes pushing the audience to become part of the dances themselves.
I was in complete awe as those 156 minutes, as time whizzed by.
The film is so full of wonderful small inventions, clever and subtle updates which never felt crowbarred or preachy (another tiny sin in Spielberg’s latest filmography), while at the same time it’s impossible not to recognise that this is old-school film-making, so confident and timeless that it feels like a classic already.
One wonders how the younger audiences, raised on Marvel superheroes and visual effects, will respond to this, but if you love musical and cinema itself you might just fall in with love with this, like I did.
Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick.
West Side Story is out in the cinema from the 10th of December.
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