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West Side Story ★★★★★

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Director: Steven Spielberg

Stars: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and Rita Moreno

Released: 10th December 2021 (UK)

West Side Story is a triumph in every sense of the word, not only because of the terrific musical numbers and performances, or the sensational script by Tony Kushner, or the sensational use of space within the frame but because it is so humanist in its depiction of the loss of love as the loss of life while being so wonderfully entertaining, sweet and uplifting, that it is essential cinema. Steven Spielberg has made a timeless piece of art that speaks to every American and speaks to what America has always been, which has created the America we have today while never losing sight of the importance of love and life. In short, he has brought back the wonder in his “wunderkind” moniker of the 1970s, to create magic so perfect that when shattered by the vitriolic xenophobia of America present in his 2000’s works, the results are heartbreaking.

In late 1950s New York City, war is breaking out between the Jets and the Sharks, the former being a gang of young white men, and the latter being a group of young Puerto Rican men, the gangs vying for control of territory they both call home, and that the city is demolishing. Amidst the racial and social tensions of the conflict, Tony (Ansel Elgort), recently out of jail, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), new to New York, fall in love, their affiliations to both gangs leading to tragic consequences.

West Side Story is an exuberantly soul-sweeping masterpiece. It is such a terrifically exciting film for the veteran filmmaker for several reasons. Yet, consistently, it is grounded in its emotions and politics, allowing for Spielberg’s first foray into the Musical genre to expand his cinematic language. This makes for one of, if not the visual spectacle of the year, with the colour palette never pinned down, its ever-shifting hues of yellows, blues, and reds reflecting character moods. The framing and cinematography by usual Spielberg collaborator, Janusz Kaminski, is phenomenal in its ability to create dynamism and verticality to a musical, incorporating the third dimension from the adaptation of a medium that is mostly constrained to its horizontal layout. Through this, Spielberg’s vision of 50’s New York is filthy but energetic, lost, but full of hope. The long pans/takes and wide lens framing only add to the encompassing scope of how violence has become the universal language between two different groups of people. At the same time, the extraordinary close-ups, soft lighting, and sweeping camera movements of maria and Tony’s scene are a beautiful juxtaposition. Spielberg’s visual language here is confident and complex, not to mention new for the filmmaker, but all in service of capturing the genuine emotions of his characters.

The film is ostensibly about the American dream, white Americans’ misconception that it is for them, and how immigrants struggle to surpass racial barriers in the hopes of achieving the dream that others think is theirs. Spielberg explores the root of the language of violence in America as an answer to xenophobia to be born out of being denied the myth of that American Dream, which only leads to hate. This is where West Side Story uses its genre to stunning effect, with the choreography by Justin Peck and the exquisite theatricality of the production design used to enable dialogue between characters concerning love, loyalty, fear, and distrust. Both Tony and Maria are looking for fresh starts, which their love is, only to be taken away because of the country they are in, as Rita Moreno’s beautiful solo of “Somewhere” exemplifies, connecting back to her character in the original West Side Story (1961), adding the layer that the events of this film are but one of many in a cycle that America is still in today. She is a terrific addition to the film and provides an air of warmth and solace. But even more than this, the choreography opens up a dialogue about the tools in America’s arsenal to perpetuate the hate xenophobia breeds, its characters negotiating the politics of gun laws, religion, the police force, defunct social services, education systems, and gentrification, through dance.

Regardless of the above, the film would fail to work if the romance between Tony and Maria didn’t work. Thanks to the best performance of Ansel Elgort’s career and a stunning debut from Rachel Zegler, with the aiding of the aforementioned dreamlike cinematography and colours, the romance between Tony and Maria is one of the definitive romances to grace the silver screen this century. It is believable that their bond and love would be so strong despite such little time, and how this love could transcend any form of bigotry or hate, leading to the film’s most emotionally resonant and devastating moments. Tony’s rendition of “Maria” is exquisite, and their duet of “Tonight” is too beautiful to describe. Their chemistry soars, and their love is inspiring, eventually fusing itself to the film’s cinematic language. The beauty of this film is how Spielberg has this effect by having an ending that gives no easy answers and instead asks us, when all we have left is hate, what’s next? The film’s final shot is bittersweet, heartbreaking, and hopeful, and one of the most memorable final images of a film in some time.

West Side Story is Steven Spielberg’s best film of the 21st century and one of his best films, period. At a time when America is driven seemingly by distrust and a loss of community, Spielberg transports us to the nostalgic 50s (“when America was great”) and shows us why we should not fetishize that time or the mindset, and that because we have, we are left with hate. But is also bringing us all together in the space of a cinema and inviting us to connect through the love and loss of Tony and Maria’s relationship. This is a masterwork from a master filmmaker and a wonderful musical. The kid is back, except he never really left and is still learning new tricks.

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