West Side Story (4 stars)

West Side Story

A spectacular and well-performed but fundamentally unnecessary remake from Steven Spielberg

Just weeks after the death of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim his most famous songs are back on the big screen, being belted out by a new generation of talent. West Side Story is the first musical directed by Sondheim's namesake, Steven Spielberg, who is dauntingly following up Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins's 1961 version – the winner of ten Academy Awards.

Once again set in 1950s NYC, in its formerly impoverished Upper West Side, this Romeo And Juliet-inspired story tells the tale of rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets, and the young lovers that attempt to cross their divide. Baby Driver's Ansel Elgort plays Jet co-founder Tony, who is trying the straight and narrow on for size after a spell in prison, while newcomer Rachel Zegler is the object of his amour, María, the sister of Sharks boss Bernardo (David Alvarez). The standout star of the original, Rita Moreno, pops up as the kindly Valentina, who runs her late husband Doc's drugstore and takes Tony under her wing. Moreno's original role of Bernardo's girlfriend Anita is taken here by Ariana DeBose, while Mike Faist is head Jet Riff, Brian d'Arcy James is Officer Krupke and Corey Stoll is Lieutenant Schrank.

Beyond giving a new cast a crack at the tunes and Spielberg a crack at the genre, it's hard to see why West Side Story has been reinvigorated for a contemporary crowd. It's not the most profound on issues of race and the American immigrant experience, with something like In The Heights much more exploratory and relevant, while its portrayal of the era's policing doesn't exactly feel credible. And do all-singing, all-dancing 'street toughs' really have a place in the 21st century?

However, the songs remain undeniably sensational, being amongst the catchiest and most rousing in musical history, and the ensemble certainly put on a good show. Some will find Elgort a suitably dreamy romantic lead; he's too insipid and pouty to really shine, but the rest of the cast impress. Zegler packs plenty of emotional punch as María and really sings her heart out and Faist is a charismatic scene-stealer as the volatile and exasperating Riff. As you'd expect, Spielberg has no trouble livening things up visually, making the material more cinematic than ever, and the fusion of Spanish and English and more authentic casting is welcome too. It may be too dated to win over younger audiences, but fans who want to see one of their favourites given a spangly new Christmas makeover are in for a real treat.

Available to watch in cinemas from Friday 10 December.

West Side Story

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • US
  • 2h 36min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Steven Spielberg
  • Cast: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Corey Stoll, Brian d'Arcy James, Rita Moreno
  • UK release: 10 December 2021

Directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, West Side Story tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City, inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This reimagining of the beloved musical stars Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as María…