Steven Spielberg’s dazzling reimagination of West Side Story does full justice to the greats who created the original musical.
In his hands, hugely helped by a superb cast, Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics hit you right between the eyes with new power and with a tidal wave of emotion which never for a moment skirts with sentimentality.
Above all, despite being set in a 1950s New York slum about to be bulldozed, this is a film which is beautiful, from its huge set pieces and immaculate choreography through to the tender, intimate moments.
Tonight – as Tony and Maria discover new love in the condemned tenements – is everything you could possibly hope for, hauntingly, exquisitely done, most likely the great highlight in a film which takes its time to build and builds with great power. In the end, it delivers a heart-breaking reflection on the way violence begets violence, the way it sucks people in, overrules common sense and makes victims of everyone.
The context, in Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s riff on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, is warring gangs, the Sharks versus the Jets, the latter resentful white boys provoking the former, the Puerto Ricans trying to make a life for themselves.
The tension is palpable. Trouble is brewing and it is against this threat that Tony and Maria cross the divide, a doomed love which ought to unite the communities and show the way towards togetherness.
Except, of course, it doesn’t. Maria urges Tony to head off the big fight; he can’t. For all his resolve, he’s inexorably drawn in.
It’s a terrific performance from Ansel Elgort as Tony, but in a sense you feel you knew what he could do. The film’s big revelation is his Maria, newcomer Rachel Zegler who is stunning in the role.
Her singing, her dancing, simply her whole presence is mesmerising – a tender, gentle creature amid all the tensions around her. It’s the kind of performance which leaves you convinced that a star has been born – a performance which brings home the tragedy of it all.
And yet it’s not a piece without humour... not that that can deflect the sadness.
The Sharks and the Jets are led by warmongers, the Sharks by Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Jets by Riff, and it’s the leaders that set the tone as the gangs prepare for war, rattling their chains and brandishing their baseball bats.
Tony has moved beyond them. A spell in prison has convinced him to leave behind the person he used to be, which is, of course, precisely the reason he is now susceptible to Maria’s charms. It’s all about whether he can leave his past – and the instincts of his clan – behind him. It’s compelling stuff, with a host of lovely performances around, especially from Rita Moreno, who was Anita in the original 1961 version and who touchingly gives us Valentina now. And on top of all this, we get the music, beautifully orchestrated and performed, wonderfully choreographed. I Feel Pretty is successfully given a new context; America bursts with life. But it is Tonight which lingers, an outstanding moment in an outstanding film.