Through Harri Knight-Davis, Third year, Cinema and Television
Steven Spielberg is certainly familiar with genres, whether it’s sci-fi and fantasy, action-adventure, historical drama or children’s movies. And despite a few hiccups along the way, he’s excelled at every genre he’s tried his hand at. The genre that has always escaped him was the musical, until now. And it was worth the wait, with Spielberg’s lavish update of West Side Story.
that of Spielberg West Side Story draws close to the original musical and 1961 film, which follows the rivalry of white gang The Jets and Puerto Rican gang The Sharks and doomed lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler). Despite Spielberg’s respect for previous versions of West Side Story, Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner (in their third collaboration together) made some subtle but significant changes.
From changing song positions, not including subtitles when Spanish is spoken and making Anybodys (Iris Menas) a trans man. All of these are welcome diversions and sweeten the slightly more problematic elements of the musical. But perhaps more importantly, Spielberg’s version of West Side Story feels different from what came before it. This is evoked by the aesthetics of the film and the staging of its musical numbers. Spielberg and regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski imbue a harsher color palette than the 1961 version. So when the exuberance of color explodes on screen for musical numbers and when the film focuses on Maria and her family, it seems deserved and even more electrifying.
For the musical numbers, in particular “America” and “I Feel Pretty”, Spielberg and Kaminski transpose the sequences of unique places in the 1961 version to larger and larger sets. It adds extra dynamism, but most of all, it gives this remake a new and unique feel. Maybe that’s what West Side Story is successful in most, and what makes it work is that you feel like you’re living a different musical despite the same songs and story repeating itself.
Another addition to Spielberg’s film is an all-Latin cast for The Sharks, which makes sense but remains an improvement over the 1961 version. The move also allows him to introduce the charming Zegler to the world who delivers a tender performance in as long as Maria. The film also features Ariana DeBose playing Anita, a quasi-mother figure of Maria, who threatens to steal the film with a powerful performance. Mike Faist is also formidable as Riff and 90-year-old Rita Moreno is a beautiful reassuring presence as Valentina.
And then there’s the Ansel Elgort problem. With the allegations made against him last year, it is sometimes difficult and almost impossible to dislodge this from your mind while looking at him. He gives a pretty solid performance as Tony, but the lingering presence of Elgort’s personal life taints the overall enjoyment of the picture.
Apart from the distracting Elgort, Spielberg’s interpretation never quite reached the heights of the years 1961. West Side Story. His innovation is arguably unsurpassed when making a musical film, so Spielberg also had an impossible task to improve on the original film.
However, what he did was recreate one of the most famous movie musicals of all time and gave it some verve and class and, most importantly, deepened and added to the original material, not just by repeating what preceded it.
Featured Image: IMDB
Do you think Spielberg did Maria and Tony justice?