Steven Spielberg proves many wrong with his wonderful remake of Robert Wise's classic musical.
Robert Wise’s famous 1961 original adaptation of West Side Story was one of the earlier films I saw that made a lasting impression on me. Like most people my age, I came across La La Land when it was released (thanks to my enjoyment of Damien Chazelle’s debut feature from 2014, Whiplash) and became curious about its influences as it felt stylistically distinct when compared with 99 percent of films currently coming out. This led me to Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which remains my favourite musical, and I owe it additional thanks for getting me into Playtime – the 60s French cinema binge was a wonderful one!) and then, finally, to West Side Story which I enjoyed.
My love for musicals has fallen apart a little over the years so, upon hearing that Steven Spielberg was to direct a huge budget remake of Wise’s original, I was one of the many skeptics who wondered why the legendary director would be interested in committing to a remake of an already very good film. This doubt stayed with me until the opening shot of the film stated its point quite clearly: Spielberg’s unending love for movement and kinetics is on full display here as he uses a wild opening crane shot that sets the stage for the 150-minute emotional epic musical.
Whilst the first act of the film does feel a little suffocated by its editing (many of the cuts are a little jarring, but the rhythm of the film becomes more settled as it moves ahead), West Side Story slowly opens up more and more until it feels like a monumental achievement. It is beautifully choreographed, not only in its sequences of dance but also in its use of colours, the movements of the camera and, perhaps most importantly, the movement of the montage. If cinema is defined by its ability to show movement, West Side Story is one of the most directly cinematic films of recent memory.
With its plot influenced by classical Greek tragedy and, more obviously, Shakespeare’s story of Romeo & Juliet, Spielberg also takes his interest in neoclassicism one step further here. Having consistently made films that bring historical events forward with wildly modern cinematic techniques throughout his 21st century work, this sees Spielberg fully commit to classicism by not only setting his film in the 1960s and having the focus be on modern issues (gang violence, police, gentrification, gender divides, etc.) but also by having the influences of so many foundational literary texts make their way into the plot too.
West Side Story is a film so apparently made by a fluent filmmaker that the film itself feels fluid – very frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is really the star of the show, as it gives the film that constant movement and forward thrust that is then only added to by the dance choreography and the narrative movement. Many of the performances are great, too – Ansel Elgort struggles a little under the weight of the main role, but newcomer Rachel Zegler is a great Maria, David Alvarez as Bernardo (another newcomer) is fantastic and, my favourite of all the performances in the film, Mike Faist as Riff is brilliant. The film comes highly recommended to all – it is accessible, it is brilliantly made and it deserves your time.
West Side Story is currently in cinemas, certificate 12A. Watch the trailer below: