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Five stars for Spielberg's 'moving' West Side Story
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West Side Story
Spielberg's version of the classic musical is "full of energy, passion and tragedy", says Caryn James. It is perfect for now, while also embracing "all that is sublime" in its source.
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West Side Story, first staged on Broadway in 1957, is timeless, which isn't anything like being trapped in the past. Eternal works of art can be endlessly transformed, much the way West Side Story itself turned Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, complete with balcony scene, into the story of Tony and Maria, young lovers from opposite sides of an ethnic divide in a crumbling New York City neighbourhood.

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There was a magical, once-in-a-lifetime quality in that initial collaboration: Leonard Bernstein's heart-piercingly beautiful music, Stephen Sondheim's trenchant yet romantic lyrics, Arthur Laurents's book and Jerome Robbins' classically-inspired choreography. And there is a similar alchemy in the glorious new version. Directed by Steven Spielberg at his most masterful, with a smartly-conceived screenplay by Tony Kushner and crisp new choreography by Justin Peck, the film honours the production's roots while giving it a 21st-Century sensibility. Full of energy, wit, passion and tragedy, looking backward and forward at once, it is one of the most moving films of the year.

This new version is still set in 1957, and the artifice of its studio set, with tenement buildings and empty lots, is deliberate, evoking the story's origins on stage. But the film is also purely cinematic in the way the camera tells the story, swooping into the middle of a musical number at a gym, looking down from overhead on dancers filling the streets, gazing in close-up at Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) as they fall in love. The 1961 film version may have won 10 Oscars, but it's hopelessly stage-bound – as 1960s movie musicals often were – and Spielberg's never is.

Hearing the lyrics so soon after Sondheim's death is a reminder of how irreplaceable he was

The opening scene signals another important difference. The camera passes over the rubble of an area recently cleared by the New York Housing Authority – as "slum clearance" according to a sign – in order to make way for the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Both the Puerto Rican and poor white residents of the area are about to be displaced, and Kushner's screenplay leans hard on that real-life disenfranchisement, as well as the ethnic rivalry. 

The film spends a bit too much time setting up this conflict and introducing the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang led by Maria's brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Jets, the white gang founded by Tony and his best friend, Riff (Mike Faist). But the dancing and music are kinetic. Peck's choreography throughout keeps the DNA of Robbins's but adds an athleticism that makes it feel fresh. Twirling and leaping down the mean streets of the New York's Upper West Side, the Sharks and Jets are still the most balletic punks ever.

One of Kushner's variations is to give Tony a new history. Here he is on parole, having spent a year in prison for beating another man nearly to death, a stint that has left him determined to reform. It can be hard to buy the change from hothead to sensitive soul, but the shift adds another layer of tragic irony. And in the film's most inspired innovation, the drugstore where Tony works is no longer owned by a man named Doc, but by his widow, Valentina. Sharp-eyed and kind, she is played with a centred calm by none other than Rita Moreno, who won the best supporting actress Oscar as Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, in the original film. Moreno and Valentina blend together to become the soul and conscience of this new version.

But the essence of West Side Story is still its ill-fated love affair. Tony and Maria finally meet at a dance at a gym. Anita, in a layered, dynamic performance by Ariana DeBose, is the centre of attention, swirling her skirt and dancing to the Latin rhythms that infuse the film. But soon Tony and Maria's eyes lock and they meet under the bleachers in a silent, elegant ballet of their own. Elgort's earnest performance gives Tony endearing sincerity, and Zegler – in her first film role –  is the ideal Maria, a young woman brimming with life and hope. Bernardo, furious that this white boy would even look at his sister, forces them apart, but by then their bond has already taken hold. 

This is where the film truly takes off, soaring into their romance. As Tony walks through the night streets singing Maria, Elgort's voice is clear and light, capturing the exhilaration of Bernstein's music. Hearing the lyrics so soon after Sondheim's death is a reminder of how irreplaceable he was. Who else could possibly have written: "Maria/ Say it loud and there's music playing/ Say it soft and it's almost like praying"?

Spielberg has created his own miracle, a film for today that embraces all that is sublime in its incomparable source

Tony finds Maria and climbs the fire escape to her window overlooking a courtyard where laundry is strung between buildings. If we don't believe in their improbable love at first sight, of course, nothing else in West Side Story can work. But Zegler and Elgort are completely convincing. Zegler's face is both innocent and full of passion, and her voice strong and lovely as they sing Tonight. Spielberg stages this balcony scene dramatically as they race up and down the fire escape, yet intimate through his use of closeups, capturing the simmering sexual tension of their encounter. The sequence of Maria and Tonight creates the film's most exquisite episode. But we know that a rumble between the Jets and Sharks looms, and that it can't end well. 

Before that rumble, the film fits in an effervescent version of the comic number Gee, Officer Krupke, with the Jets bouncing around a police station while Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James) is out of sight. Nothing of the score is wasted, as Bernstein's melodies drift in and out the soundtrack with graceful ease. In other highlights, DeBose brings a volatile glee to America, a sequence staged as an elaborate dance down the stairs of her tenement out on to the streets. Zegler gets her own vibrant centrepiece in I Feel Pretty. But the most eloquent and moving moment belongs to Moreno. (This shouldn't be a spoiler, but if you are especially sensitive about revelations, skip to the next paragraph.) The song Somewhere, usually sung by the lovers as an expression of hope, is now sung by Valentina, alone in her store after learning that the rumble has led to two deaths, one caused by Tony. Moreno makes the lyric "There's a place for us" a quiet, mournful expression of grief for all the lost hopes that surround her. She and DeBose, who is as good at expressing sadness as she is at fiery energy, dominate the potent last part of the film.

Spielberg is wise enough to know that the original West Side Story was once-in-a-lifetime. He has created his own miracle, a diversely cast, socially-aware film for today that embraces all that is sublime in its incomparable source. It makes perfect sense that the film's premiere took place at Lincoln Center, completing a timeless circle, on and off screen.

★★★★★

West Side Story is released on 10 December

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