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The 50 best films of 2021 in the UK, No 7: West Side Story

·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP</span>
Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP

Steven Spielberg’s refreshing new take on the classic musical was a jubilantly sugary delight that whisked you back to the 50s

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story 2.0 is an ecstatic act of ancestor-worship. It’s a vividly dreamed, cunningly modified and visually staggering revival. No one but Spielberg could have pulled it off, creating a movie in which Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics blaze out with fierce new clarity. Spielberg retains María’s narcissistic I Feel Pretty, transplanted from the bridal workshop to a fancy department store where she’s working as a cleaner. This was the number whose Cowardian skittishness Sondheim himself had second thoughts about. But its confection is entirely palatable.

Related: The 50 best films of 2021 in the UK: 50-21

Spielberg has worked with screenwriter Tony Kushner to change the original book by Arthur Laurents, tilting the emphases and giving new stretches of unsubtitled Spanish dialogue, and keeping much of the visual idiom of Jerome Robbins’s stylised choreography. This new West Side Story isn’t updated historically yet neither is it a shot-for-shot remake. But daringly, maybe defiantly, it reproduces the original period ambience with stunning digital fabrications of late-50s New York whose authentic detail co-exists with an unashamed theatricality. On the big screen the effect is hyperreal, as if you have somehow hallucinated your way back more than 60 years – to both the musical stage for the Broadway opening night and also the city streets outside.

We’re on the Upper West Side in 1958 where decaying tenements are being bulldozed for the fancy new Lincoln Center. Ansel Elgort plays Tony, a young white man and ex-Jets member whom this movie imagines to be just out of prison, where he was for an act of violence that has scared him away from gang warfare. Now he’s staying at Doc’s drugstore: or rather the widow of the late Doc is his landlady Valentina – marvellously played by Rita Moreno, who was Anita in the original 1961 version. Theirs was an Anglo-Latino love match, the future that Tony and María (played here by newcomer Rachel Zegler) should have had.

Elgort and Zegler are a more real pair than Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in the original but they have the same fundamental innocence and quaint pre-pop, pre-60s youth culture unworldliness. West Side Story is contrived, certainly, a hothouse flower of musical theatre, and Spielberg quite rightly does not try hiding any of its stage origins. His mastery of technique is thrilling; I gave my heart to this poignant American fairytale of doomed love.

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