Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story review: This glorious remake really sings

Review at a glance
Though one of the most famous directors on the planet, Steven Spielberg has never “done” a musical. Here, he remakes one of the most stirring examples of the genre (the 1957 show, which in turn inspired the Oscar-guzzling 1961 film). Far from falling on his face, the 74 year old lands on his feet. The big show off.

A brilliant cast, led by Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler, ensure the doomed romance between New Yorkers Tony and Maria is sweet, sweaty and searing. The Romeo and Juliet-inspired young couple are caught up in a racially-motivated turf war between two street gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Jets, led by Tony’s best-friend, self-styled “American”, Riff, (Mike Faist). I started crying at the end of a certain “rumble” and though the film’s stuffed with wit, I more or less didn’t stop.

It’s not that Spielberg’s version is better than the one co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. That wild ride was set in the mid-Fifties and forced 1960s audiences to look with fresh eyes at the recent past. Spielberg’s West Side Story, by sticking to the Fifties setting, is offering a vision of the distant past. Inevitably, that makes it a cosier proposition.

Also, the original film had Rita Moreno and if you’ve seen her in action in that movie, as Bernardo’s kind, libidinous and caustic girlfriend, Anita, you’ll know she’s as good as it gets. Luckily, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner also got her on board and use her charisma to their advantage. The part of Doc, the kindly corner-shop owner who tries to broker peace between the gangs, has been reworked. Now 89 Moreno plays Doc’s widow, Valentina, and is magnetic in every scene.

But that original movie wasn’t perfect – Spielberg and Kushner have definitely made improvements. For starters, Richard Beymer’s Tony was a non-event, wrapped in a duvet of dullness. Elgort, though a controversial figure (last year he was accused of a sexual assault alleged to have happened in 2014, which he strongly denies) has so much more intelligence and charm. His voice isn’t especially stunning but he can move; singing a re-worked version of “Cool”, opposite Faist, he’s as sinewy as Spielberg’s camera-work.

The new film’s Anita is played by Ariana DeBose and you can tell that filling Moreno’s shoes is a dream come true for this actress. She makes the part her own (a scene where she and Bernardo kiss, in and around a sheet of fabric, is especially hot) but her sensuality and spark pay homage to what’s gone before. She and Moreno don’t dance or sing together; they don’t exchange a single word. But they’re a dream team. Meanwhile, Zegler is so much better than Natalie Wood. The latter, though a great actress, couldn’t sing (she had to be dubbed) and didn’t convince as a Hispanic woman. Zegler does all her own vocal work and is half Colombian.

Like several other key figures, this Maria keeps breaking into Spanish. The phrase “Speak ENGLISH!” is used repeatedly by both American and Hispanic characters, yet that instruction is repeatedly ignored. There are no subtitles in this movie, which is not a problem (I can’t speak Spanish, but I got the gist). And it sends a powerful message: the future is bilingual.

In case you didn’t know, the lyrics to all the songs were written by Stephen Sondheim. Damn, they’ve aged well (Gee Officer Krupke sounds particularly spry). Sondheim died last week – he may be gone, but he’s never seemed so current. A pied piper, he just keeps leading new generations into the dangerous but glorious world of snark.

And let’s give Shakespeare and Jerome Robbins (who conceived the original show) a pat on the back for generating such juicy and malleable myths. A big cheer for them all. Hooray! Or should I say, ¡Hurra!

In cinemas from December 10