Gangs Without Territory

West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Corey Stoll, Rita Moreno, David Alvarez, Ariana Debose, Brian d’Arcy James, Mike Faist

Film Rating 9.5 out of 10

Running time: 2 hours and 36 minutes

Oscar winning director Steven Spielberg’s cinematic adaptation of West Side Story is truly phenomenal.

A vibrant, beautifully filmed remake of the 1961 film which won 10 Oscars back then and is going to sweep the board at Oscar season in 2022. With a beautiful script by Tony Kushner, the multi award winning playwright who penned the 1990 AIDS drama Angels in America, West Side Story tells the story of two rival teenage street gangs in New York City in 1957, as their neighbourhoods are going to be torn down, to make way for the building of the now impressive Lincoln Theatre on the edge of Manhattan and Harlem.

More significantly West Side Story is a contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with all the themes of forbidden love, the individual versus society and the inevitability of fate, violence and sexual desire. Impressively, director Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is beautifully shot, with vibrant colour saturation, authentic production design and choreography and dance numbers that will dazzle the audiences and then pull them into the fate of the two star crossed lovers: Tony superbly played by Ansel Elgort (The Goldfinch, Baby Driver, The Fault in Our Stars) and Broadway star turned film actress Rachel Zegler who plays the beautiful Puerto Rican girl Maria.

In a genius stroke of casting, Rita Moreno who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the 1961 version of West Side Story is cast as Tony’s Puerto Rican boss Valentina, who also steals the show.

West Side Story sensitively addresses the contemporary issues facing most industrialized cities today: gentrification, turf warfare, gang violence, xenophobia and systemic racism with a flamboyance and a style which is both insightful and entertaining.

As Tony and Maria meet at a dance off in a beautiful colour saturated scene highly representative of the opulent Capulet Ball scene in director Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, their fate is sealed forever, as Tony, a Polish ex-con falls helplessly in love with the gorgeous Maria a young Puerto Rican teenager who makes a living cleaning plush department stores by night .

From the beautiful balcony scene, with washing flying in the moonlit night, Tony climbs up to Maria’s apartment and professes undying love for her despite their opposing cultural backgrounds and that they both come from rival gangs which are fighting over a territory which will soon be demolished.

Representative of Tybalt, Maria’s hot headed brother Bernardo is played with all the machismo and bravado of a young gang leader by David Alvarez. Mercutio is represented on the other end by Riff played by another Broadway star Mike Faist, a dynamic fast talking hothead and best friend of Tony who refuses to back down against the threat of violence.

Ariana DeBose (The Prom, Hamilton) also shines in a riveting performance as Bernando’s girlfriend Anita and mentor to Maria and deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

As a film, West Side Story is truly remarkable, from the beautifully choreographed dance numbers to the stunning costumes, to the authenticity of recreating New York City in 1957, as this magical city was transforming into a new modern metropolis of the 1960’s. The film is shot with luminescent cinematography by Polish director of photography Janusz Kaminski who won Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

Once again Oscar winning director of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg directs a flawless film, from the way that the dance numbers are set up, to the editing and production design as he effortlessly recaptures all the vibrancy and violence of a forbidden love torn apart by rival gangs, gentrification and systemic racism.

West Side Story gets a film rating of 9.5 out of 10 and is real cinematic gem, a truly brilliant film with a superb script by Tony Kushner and a cast that is as authentic as they are talented.

This 21st century retelling of a classic musical is highly recommended viewing and remains as relevant today as it did back in 1961.

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