Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story may be the director’s greatest achievement to date. Spielberg has flipped the script and directed his childhood passion project, a musical, to fantastic effect.
In 1957, in the slums of New York City, two rival gangs battle it out over territory that’s in the process of being demolished. From the outside looking in, the fighting seems pointless. But to the members of the caucasian-American-led Jets and the Puerto Rican-run Sharks, San Juan Hill is about heritage, nationalism, displacement of home, but mostly pride.
After their first rumble is stopped by the cops, the two gangs go their separate ways, but tensions continue to rise. Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the Jets, goes to his old friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort), to convince him to plan the rumble to end all rumbles. Tony refuses; he’s a new man now, cool, calm, collected. But Riff doesn’t take no for an answer, forcing Tony to attend an upcoming dance to see the Sharks for himself.
Meanwhile, on the Puerto Rican side of town, the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez), has arranged a date for his reluctant sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler). At the dance, forbidden love blooms behind the bleachers as Tony and Maria dance in a balletic meeting of souls. Bernardo catches them, and the real war begins.
Spielberg’s reimagining of this classic tale tackle’s universal themes that can be seen right back to Romeo and Juliet. Primarily, the relationship between Tony and Maria explores the artificial barriers that humans are prone to draw between themselves and those they see as their enemies. At the same time, Tony struggles to move on from what his friends tell him is his true self, a Jet. Tony wants to get out of the cycle of the slum, and he sees Maria as his ticket out. But to have the life they want, Tony is drawn into his old ways and back into the cycle. West Side Story asks questions of national identity, prideful gang warfare, who we want to be battling against, who we are perceived as, and how it all ultimately represses and destroys itself.
The most striking thing about West Side Story is the incredible manner in which it has been told. It is clear that Spielberg treated the development of the film as he would have a Schindler’s List (1993) or a Lincoln (2012). While the only real name in the movie is Ansel Elgort, of Baby Driver (2017) fame, the newcomers to the screen, more often than not, steal the show. The greatest technical achievement is Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography. Completely Spielbergian, the cinematography of West Side Story transports the viewer back to the 1950s by the very texture of the film it was shot on. In some sequences, the visuals are staggering, awash with technicolour and in-camera practical effects, harkening back to films of old.
All this adds up to a window into the past, into 1950’s New York, into the old style of filmmaking, and into the mind of a 10-year-old Steven Spielberg. West Side Story is heart-warming, heartbreaking, and an all-round good time at the movies.
While she has played Maria in plenty of stage productions of “West Side Story”, this is Rachel Zegler’s first film role. Steven Spielberg credits her as the greatest Maria he’s ever witnessed.