By Erin Waks
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story brings new life, passion and meaning to the classic musical. Whilst set in the 1950s, the show has particular significance today. Focused on the conflict between rival gangs in New York City, the Jets fight the Sharks for control over territory. Even though the racial tensions depicted shed light on 1950s American society, the sentiment of hatred addressed towards the Hispanic migrants in the city speaks true to the racism present within American society today.
The main plot of the film, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, explores the relationship between Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), and Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former member of the Jets. Despite the turmoil and the conflict between their rival backgrounds, they fall deeply and rapidly in love. The film culminates in a tense scene where both Bernardo and Jets’ leader Riff (Mike Faist) are killed, ultimately leading to Tony’s murder. Maria delivers a final speech on hate, as the wasted deaths of many protagonists are abundantly clear.
The duo at the heart of this film, Tony and Maria, is expertly played by Elgort and Zegler. As the latter’s debut film, it is particularly impressive. Elgort’s vibrato combined with Zegler’s gorgeous tone and impressive soprano join in musical harmony. Whilst at times the chemistry between the pair is less convincing, by the end of the film the audience is left in despair whilst watching Maria’s heartbroken tears fall over her lover’s dead body. Elgort’s best performance is undoubtedly the famous ‘Something’s Coming’, and Zegler brings a wonderful naivety to counteract his boyish yet dangerous charm, through songs such as ‘Tonight’.
The true stand-out performance for me though, was Ariana DeBose as Anita, the confident and alluring girlfriend of Bernardo. In one of the most visually aesthetic and entertaining group pieces in the film, ‘America’, Anita leads an energetic dance number through the streets. Her vivacity, expert vocal technique and personality shone through. When her lover dies, and she is almost raped by Jets gang members in one of the most terrifying and powerful scenes of the film, she demonstrates a sadness, fear and rage that is unparalleled. Her range and ability are exquisite, and the audience can’t take their eyes off her.
Other group numbers are also highly enticing, and the costume choices contribute to the lively atmosphere captured by the film. ‘Jet Song’ and ‘La Borinqueña’ showcase the talent of the male ensemble, in contrast to the female ensemble’s performances of ‘America’ and ‘I Feel Pretty’. By providing each group with costumes in clear colour palettes, the wardrobe team succeed in emphasising the racial and social divide. With the Jets in blacks and blues and the Sharks in warmer tones, the meaning is clear: there can be no mixing, no multiculturalism, no living together side by side.
The film, whilst beautifully constructed and executed with style, is not without its faults. Adapting a stage musical to film, intended to be watched with an interval halfway through, means that the audience is watching for longer than is ideal, and I could feel attention waning in the cinema towards the end. Understandably, cinema can neither provide an interval nor cut vital pieces from the score, however, this does impact the ending of the film, as perhaps the audience doesn’t quite have the bandwidth to appreciate the final message.
Nonetheless, I would highly recommend the film to any fans of musical theatre, social commentary and cinema in general. It is a gorgeous piece of art and should absolutely be appreciated.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr