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West Side Story is in UK cinemas now. 

The first thing you hear in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is expected: that famous, eerie off-screen whistle, lifted directly from earlier incarnations of Leonard Bernstein’s musical, sounding an opening note to anxious traditionalists that at least some of this big-screen revival will be business as usual. The first thing you see, however, is a less auspicious image to those protective of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s treasured 1961 film version: a literal wrecking ball, its menacing curve at first consuming the frame, before Janusz Kaminski’s gliding, terpsichorean camera swoops over it, tumbling down into the rubble of a Manhattan demolition site. Brownstones lie in pieces or stand in half-shattered cross-sections, soon to be supplanted by the glassy apartment towers that were the future in 1958.

In stark contrast to the dazzlingly pristine, even futuristic aerial views of the city that opened the earlier film, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s opening salvo carries the weary wisdom granted by six ensuing decades, a glum warning of things to come. The gang war between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks may play out as it has done a thousand times before, the new film says, but New York’s inexorable gentrification will defeat them both.

It’s this strain of melancholy that defines the new West Side Story, even as its most elaborate setpieces re-conjure the predominant ebullience of the earlier film – a duly tragic spin on Romeo and Juliet, of course, but one that felt even its pain in brash, grandiose Technicolor strokes. There, as in umpteen versions past, any heartache was almost entirely given over to its doomed, beautiful young lovers: bad-Jet-turned-good Tony and virginal Shark sister Maria, whose culture-crossing soul connection should be so intense as to cancel out any implausibility regarding their day-long arc from love at first sight to last breath. Russian-American star Natalie Wood may not have been ideally cast as Maria, and dreamboat-of-the-day Richard Beymer not an especially vital Tony, but the film made us believe in them by dint of sheer swooning volume.

Kushner’s bracingly liberal adaptation finds another way around the Maria-Tony problem, most frequently by taking the focus away from them altogether, and beefing up the presence of assorted secondary players. Anita, formerly played to Oscar-winning effect by Rita Moreno, remains the show’s spiciest role, done justice by a whirling, righteous Ariana DeBose, but Kushner injects more blatantly articulated social unrest into her anger. Leading the barnstorming ‘America’ number, here staged as veritable street-dance duel between progressive and conservatively homesick immigrant factions, she makes a keen feminist case for struggling in poverty in the bigger pond.

Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort as Maria and Tony
Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort as Maria and Tony
© Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Tony’s violently dysfunctional best friend Riff grows here from common punk to a strange, singular presence, given a vivid reading – with faint hints of queer defensiveness – by Mike Faist. Queerer still is the minor character of Anybodys (Iris Menas), here evolved from spunky tomboy to anxious, yearning transgender man: an intelligent update that perhaps merited more extended integration into the overall narrative. Most boldly of all, meanwhile, the character of white Friar Laurence proxy Doc has been replaced with his Latina widow Valentina, nervously straddling the same cultural divide stymying Tony and Maria, and played with equal parts diva regality and tenderness by Moreno herself. The veteran has even been gifted the show’s signature ballad ‘Somewhere’, here reassigned and rearranged from a belting lovers’ declaration to a frail, mournful prayer for better times ahead.

These are thoughtful adjustments, mindful of granting purpose to what many deemed a futile remake, though they come at some cost to the show’s rapturous romantic heart. Stripped even of their defining song, Ansel Elgort’s Tony and newcomer Rachel Zegler’s Maria – both appealing enough individually – never convince as besotted, do-or-die soulmates, their love story wholly dependent on our collective memory of the material to stir any feeling at all.

And there’s the rub: for all the politically conscious 21st-century strides made by this handsome, lovingly staged version, they belie an essentially nostalgic undertow at its core, not for a rosier past, exactly, but for West Side Story itself. Though coated in the varnish of studio prestige cinema, the 1961 film was a struttingly contemporary, youthful work; remade as a period piece, burdened with backward-glancing sorrow, the new film can’t help but feel cast in amber. It may come as a relief to many that Spielberg never fully delivers on the radical, modernising threat of that hanging wrecking ball, bringing a sacrosanct text into a newer New York, but perhaps he should have swung it.