Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2021. 20th Century Studios, Amblin Entertainment, Amblin Partners, TSG Entertainment. Screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the play by Arthur Laurents. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski. Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum, Steven Spielberg. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Production Design by Adam Stockhausen. Costume Design by Paul Tazewell. Film Editing by Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn.
Steven Spielberg’s long-held dream of remaking the multiple Oscar-winning 1961 film, adapted from the hit Broadway musical by Arthur Laurents (who is thankfully not here to complain), Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, at last finds its way to the big screen, and despite the fact that no one needed a new version of a movie that still plays to great popularity with the younger generations, the results are truly glorious. Working with scriptwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg adapts the property to the modern age with a joyful spirit, fixing previous casting issues and tailoring the motivations of certain characters not to avoid backlash but to simply improve the excuse for the story’s more melodramatic moments. The Upper West Side in which the story takes place is being razed to the ground in the film’s opening shots, with posters proclaiming the gorgeous, upscale neighbourhood that will soon replace it (including the building of Lincoln Centre), an added, clarified context that, like many of Kushner’s (rarely fundamental) changes, fits like a glove. The people of the area are being pushed out and the pressure it places on those stuck there creates simmering resentment between Puerto Rican immigrants and New Yorkers who can’t escape their poverty by taking part in the White Flight, tensions that are expressed through territorial turf wars that are about to reach their boiling point. Placing the Jets and the Sharks under this microscope caused by impending gentrification also points out how feckless their fighting is, in a city that is about to make them all obsolete, their going around killing each other is only proving how small and unimportant their gang loyalties really are.
The story is, as no one needs to be reminded, an update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which the love between Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort), who come from opposite sides of the line, fall madly in love at a school dance and believe, as all foolish young lovers do, that their affection for each other will be powerful enough to survive the circumstances around them. Instead, their affair finds itself at the centre of a clash between the Jets and the Sharks that results in tragedy, all of this spirited drama expressed through the glorious musical numbers that have been close to every theatre lovers’ heart for decades, which ring out loud and strong from a cast of superb performers and are backed by rich orchestrations.
Spielberg, who joins the roster of recent directors who don’t apologize for making a musical while filming one, brings a sheen of retro beauty to the images without fully going in for the expressionist primary colours of Robert Wise’s original, the gym looks like a real place and the alleys are dirty even with the sprays of coloured lights along the brick walls. Not that he is committed to realism, just a more realistic look, still putting touches of fantasy into the upbeat musical numbers (the best of them “America”) and showing himself, in directing his first ever musical, surprisingly adept at filming them: the dancers are all flawless and get to show it, their bodies remain entirely in frame as they move across the screen, there’s no music video-style cutting between closeups of body parts that rob us of appreciating the talent on display. Many of the numbers have been moved to new spaces to open things up in ways that feel organic to the story, and which bring a new vibrancy to the music. In the lead roles, Zegler and Elgort have plenty of chemistry and invite a great deal of sympathy for their passionate affair (of two days), with her disarming sincerity more than making up for his weak singing and general lack of charisma (but he’s the only actor of the younger generation in the cast who is a bankable name, and we all know how that works; it’s not like Tony was ever the role that anyone went to this show to see anyway).
In the supporting cast, Ariana DeBose is infectious as Anita, electric whether singing, dancing or speaking and it’s impossible to take your eyes off her, while Mike Faist steals scenes as Riff, plucky and sympathetic despite being the hardest nut to crack of anyone in this battle of emotional wills. The appearance of 1961’s Oscar-winning Anita, the now ninety year-old Rita Moreno, threatens to mar the experience with an indulgence in twee nostalgia, but the role isn’t a cheesy cameo, retrofitting Doc to now be his Puerto Rican widow, herself torn between sides of a neighbourhood she loves wholly, is a touching and poignant addition that, like all the other alterations to the original, always feel purposeful, thoughtful and understated (plus she gets in a musical number, this time without the need for any dubbing). This is a film that has a great deal of love pulsing from every frame, not at all a tired exercise in rehashing a popular item, and never loses its strength despite a generous running time and heavy themes.
Golden Globe Awards: Best Picture-Musical/Comedy; Best Actress-Musical/Comedy (Rachel Zegler); Best Supporting Actress (Ariana DeBose)
Nomination: Best Director (Steven Spielberg)
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Ariana DeBose)