LOADS OF SPOILERS SO BE WARNED!
“I didn’t cry, mum!” said the little boy in front of me as we got up to go at the end of seeing Steven Spielberg’s remake of the legendary West Side Story on Christmas Eve. His mum had obviously told him that he would cry, and he was truly proud to have kept a rein on his juvenile emotional reserve. To be honest, it never remotely occurred to me that I might cry either – and I have a tendency to get a bit emosh when the stakes are high.
West Side Story and me haven’t really seen eye to eye over the years. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought me the soundtrack album one Christmas in my early teen years, and I dutifully played it as I knew a lot of the songs; but it never really hit home. The only song that I did enjoy playing, because it stood out as a beacon of irreverent fun, was Gee Officer Krupke; and it was a delight to revisit it in this film. It’s always fascinating when you know a song from a musical but you don’t know how it fits into the musical – and when you finally find out you go “ahhh, so THAT’S how it fits”. Ah yes, that’s the other confession. I’d never seen the original film; and the only time Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see a production of West Side Story on stage, we left in the interval because our seats were so far back in the Gods at the Milton Keynes Theatre that we might as well have been in a different county.
I expected to suffer a similar disconnection whilst watching the film; but in fact we were both totally engrossed with it. West Side Story is one of the best examples in theatre or film that confronts you with the strongest of juxtapositions. The most beautiful melodies and songs, photographed with the most beautiful cinematography, and the most delightful dance sequences; all set against the most horrible of stories. That contrast between beauty and ugliness hits you right from the start and never lets up – and it’s genuinely shocking.
I knew, obvs, that West Side Story was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but I didn’t realise quite how much the antagonism between the Sharks and the Jets was based on pure and simple racism. Of course, the Jets may pretend that it’s about territory, but that sounds like the equivalent of 1950s Brexit mentality to me. The Native New Yorker Jets are born no-hopers in the worst part of town, and whilst their previous generations worked hard to make a decent life for themselves, this bunch just resent the incoming Puerto Ricans and blame them for everything. On the other side, the Puerto Rican Sharks are taking what little the New Yorkers had, won’t integrate, and resent everything back. Acting out that antagonism through the medium of dance is incredibly effective and powerful; but nothing compares with the moment the knives come out and mutual destruction is the only certainty. Given its closeness to Romeo and Juliet I was completely surprised that the character of Maria does not take her own life at the end. That’s my lack of knowledge about the previous versions of the show – she never does. It’s a fascinating story decision taken by the original creative team and respected ever since.
The big numbers are sensational, where Justin Peck’s choreography all but steals the show. America, danced out in the middle of an intersection takes your breath away; Tonight flows with optimism and love; the simplicity and purity of Maria is just delightful; A Boy Like That/I Have a Love crackles with warring resentment and then reconciliation; Gee Officer Krupke brings out the humour and the fact that – just maybe – deep down inside them there is good. For me, only I Feel Pretty doesn’t quite work – even though its timing is hugely ironic as the gang leaders lie dead on a warehouse floor – but that’s purely my hang-up, I’m not that fond of the song. Somewhere is sung by Valentina and not by Tony and Maria as in the original film or by Consuelo in the original stage production. As someone who dislikes songs being given to other characters – What I Did for Love in the film version of A Chorus Line being sung by Cassie is simply unforgivable – if this change of emphasis with this song disappoints you, you have my full sympathy.
The performances are all excellent; Mike Faist is outstanding as the manipulative but over-reaching Riff, Ansel Elgort superb as the quietly optimistic Tony, David Alvarez a strong and intimidating Bernardo, and in a delightful doff of the cap to history, Rita Moreno is extraordinarily powerful as Valentina, having of course played Anita in the original film. It’s not polite to mention a lady’s age, but she’s 90 for crying out loud.
With a fascinating stroke of modern awareness, the peripheral, outcast wannabe-Jet, Anybodys, is played as a trans character by non-binary actor Iris Menas, which adds another dimension to that character’s relationship with the rest of the gang. Josh Andrés Rivera is excellent as the mild-mannered Chino, who becomes more self-assertive as the film progresses, with fatal consequences. But for me the real acting strength in this film came from the sisterly partnership of Ariana DeBose as Anita and, in her movie debut, Rachel Zegler as Maria. They shine in everything they do, and when they combine for A Boy Like That, the tension sizzles off the (virtual) celluloid.
Like the boy in front of me, I also didn’t cry at the end. You just couldn’t. They’re all as bad as each other and you could see a mile-off that they were all intent on self-destruction for the sake of their racially-skewed gang memberships. I really did hope, however, that after the cops come at the end of the film, they cart Chino away for a very long spell in the Pen. Coward, shooting Tony in the back like that. No excuse.
A superb film, immaculate in all departments. And with really, really, horrible content.
Stills from the film are of course the property of the production company