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West Side Story

"What Spielberg has achieved here is very special"

★★★★ - STUFF 

- Spielberg adds a punkish, exuberant, contemporary grit to a classic - 

There has to be a reason for a remake.

Any fool with enough money and time on their hands can make their own version of any film they choose – just as you and me can get up on our legs at a karaoke bar and murder Hotel California whenever we feel the need – but most remakes are pointless, inferior and a sure sign that someone had no decent ideas for their own project, so they tried to hitch a free ride on other people's work.

And then, just as there are fantastic covers of already wonderful songs, there are a few remakes that genuinely do bring something new to the party. I can think of a few I truly rate – and I'm sure you can too.

But the 1961 West Side Story is totemic. It picked up 10 Oscars – including Best Picture – and it continues to be a touchstone and a stratospherically high bar for filmed musicals, 60 years after it was released.

And yet, Steven Spielberg has had a thrash at a re-do. Which, for a few reasons, is mostly terrific.

First, maybe, we should acknowledge that although Spielberg's version will always be referred to as a remake of the 1961 film – including by me – that is only partly true. It is probably more accurate to think of it as another film of the stage show. Spielberg has gone back to the well – the original score, lyrics and book by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents.

Yet the DNA of the earlier film is clearly here too, in the scope and the staging of the set pieces – and in the grace notes and cues that echo and nod to Robert Wise's and Robbins’ work on the original film.

Spielberg opens his West Side Story with the cutest gag of all – pulling back from a billboard announcing the city blocks we are seeing are about to be demolished to make way for the new Lincoln Center, which stands today between 60th and 66th Street on Manhattan's upper West Side. Spielberg used The Lincoln Center as the venue for the premiere of this film. I would have liked to have been in the audience when that opening shot hit the screen.

That early spiky flourish is a clue to Spielberg's approach. His West Side Story isn't about to disrespect the genius of what has been done before – on stage or on screen. But it is about to bring a punkish, exuberant and contemporary grit to the show.

There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” here, but this production doesn't shirk from acknowledging that West Side Story is about race-based gangs – and that the Jets are an explicitly anti-immigrant crew, plotting to start a turf-war with the rival Sharks by defacing a mural of the Puerto Rican flag – the very first time we meet them.

Spielberg also revels in placing the character of “anybody's” – so often backgrounded in stage productions – front and centre in a couple of key scenes, handing the role to actor Iris Menas, who pays Spielberg back with a couple of the most affecting moments in the film.

Likewise, Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ariana DeBose (Hamilton) as Anita and Mike Faist as Riff – all of them crackling with talent and getting through their work like they know it still means something. And a special mention for 1961's Anita, Rita Moreno, now 90 years old and ripping into the newly created role of Valentina like a woman a third of her age.

The only misstep here is Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) as Tony, the lover of Maria and the nominal male lead, who too often seems slow on his feet and unsure of his trajectory when everyone around him is pretty much bursting into flame. Scenes opposite Faist's bristling Riff show Elgort up mercilessly.

What Spielberg has achieved here is very special. This West Side Story respects where it comes from, stays true to its sources and won't offend the nostalgic among you at all. But it is also a fiery, combative and relevant reading of the text that brings the show stomping and singing into the 21st century. Go and have a look. 

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

West Side Story is now playing at Light House Cinema! 

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