REVIEW: West Side Story (2021)

The Jets, The Sharks, and Tony & Maria in Spielberg’s West Side Story – Photo: 20th Century Studios.

Directed by Steven Spielberg – Screenplay by Tony Kushner.

If you’ve been thinking that another West Side Story is pretty unnecessary, then you’re not alone. After all, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 musical film adaptation of the Romeo & Juliet-inspired Broadway stage play ended up with eleven Oscar nominations and won in ten of those categories including Best Picture. Often regarded as one of the greatest musical films of all time, the 1961 film has made people very familiar with the story. So, did we need Steven Spielberg to make a new version of the stage play? No, we definitely didn’t. But here’s the thing. Let’s be honest, we also didn’t technically need another Batman reboot. We didn’t technically need three different live-action Spider-Men in the last twenty years. However, even though we didn’t need those films, just like how I loved the vast majority of the Spider-Man films, as well as the new Batman flick, I have to say that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is just wonderful. We didn’t need it, but I’m glad we now have it.

The premise of West Side Story doesn’t need much of an introduction. Clearly inspired by Romeo & Juliet, it tells the story of Tony (here played by Ansel Elgort) and Maria (here played by Rachel Zegler), two star-crossed lovers, as they fall head over heels in love, even though their friends and families — the teenage gangs of the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks — are feuding over territory and race. The central question is whether or not love can possibly prevail with so much unnecessary fighting going on.

Famed-director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner (a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) have tried their best to make slight changes to the musical to make it work a little bit better for today. This includes changing the order of songs and the locations of some major musical performances, but some of the most notable changes among them undoubtedly include the refreshingly diverse and appropriate cast (e.g. in the 1961 film ‘Maria’ was played by Natalie Wood and ‘Bernardo’ was played by George Chakiris, who are of Russian and Greek descent respectively, even though their characters are supposed to be Puerto Rican) and the equally appropriate way that Puerto Ricans in the film will shift between Spanish and English naturally. To add to that, some characters have been altered including the character now played by Rita Moreno.

For as much as has been changed, I would be lying if I said that the film doesn’t feel familiar. Spielberg’s film doesn’t escape the fact that for people familiar with the musical and the story, some of the story’s overall effect and impact has naturally been somewhat diminished or blunted. I also think the first half of the film is stronger than the second, with the second half impressing me more than it spellbound me (which the first half did). With that having been said, Spielberg’s West Side Story is, honestly, pretty fantastic.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Spielberg has proven before that he can do pretty much anything, and, as one of the greatest American filmmakers, it feels right that he has finally decided to do a musical film (I hope he, one day, makes an original musical film, though). 2021’s West Side Story, time and time again, features awe-inspiring camera movements (I love the film’s long-takes, as well as how the camera nimbly moves up, close, and personal only to move back again into wides) and is technically superb. I love how it captures the period, and it truly feels old school in some transportive ways. On top of that, the lively original choreography is also stellar, and the grand musical performances almost always brought a huge smile to my face.

I also mostly love the cast. Ariana DeBose, as ‘Anita,’ brings charm and energy to her committed performance, and Mike Faist, who plays ‘Riff,’ is equally convincing and you end up missing his star-like presence when he isn’t on-screen. Giving a star-making performance, Rachel Zegler, in her film debut, is a revelation, whereas, unfortunately, Ansel Elgort’s Tony is a little bit blander (and is constantly outshone by Zegler and Faist whenever they’re on-screen together). However, I think they make up a believable couple in the film.

So, did we need it? We didn’t, but, to be honest, I also don’t think that matters in the grand scheme of things. What matters is that one of America’s greatest filmmakers has remade a terrific musical with his West Side Story, which is technically superb, old school, and awe-inspiring. I loved it more than I thought I would.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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