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Film Review: Steven Spielberg Turns His Director’s Eye Towards ‘West Side Story’

20th Century Studios
20th Century Studios

A remake of West Side Story is wholly unnecessary. I firmly believe that. The classic musical is just that, a classic. Now, that’s not me saying don’t do a remake, just that it’s not necessary to the cinematic world. At the same time, since we live in a universe where it was happening, we’re in luck that Steven Spielberg wanted to helm it. Alongside writer Tony Kushner, Spielberg has a take for the film, preventing it from being an abysmal boondoggle. Now, I still think there are flaws to this movie and it pales in comparison to the original, but considering what could have been, it’s damn good.

West Side Story, the 2021 version, is a lot of fun, even if it’s as much an experiment as a nature piece of cinema. Spielberg’s passion to do this the right way shines through, as do some of the cast members. While not the best musical of the year, it’s undoubtedly in the top tier. Delayed by the pandemic, it’s more than worth the wait.

20th Century Studios

Once again, the plot is a take on Romeo & Juliet, as told through a forbidden love between two teenagers affiliated with rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. To rehash such a well known story is silly, so just the basics will do. In 1957, the Upper West Side of New York is home to teens of different ethnic backgrounds duking it out for territory, as well as a stake in the evolving city. The Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), consist of white guys who feel as though their world is being stolen from them. The Sharks, a Puerto Rican group led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), see them as relics and all the more reason why America is nothing to want to assimilate into. Romance will bring them both to outright war.

When Riff’s best friend and gang co-founder Tony (Ansel Elgort) lays eyes on Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler), it’s love at first sight for both. Bernardo’s partner Anita (Ariana DeBose) may be more open to America, but Maria quickly finds she has no one who approves of this courtship. The same goes for Tony, who even winds up specifically in Bernardo’s crosshairs. We all know what happens next, but at least Kushner and Spielberg don’t make things a carbon copy in the slightest.

20th Century Studios

There are highs and lows among the cast. On the plus side, we have Rita Moreno, aging into the enhanced role of Valentina, is wonderful, while newcomer Rachel Zegler is best in show. Her Maria is a ray of light whenever she’s on screen, and especially when she sings. Mike Faist and especially Ariana DeBose have plum supporting roles that they sink their teeth into. Not faring as well but still solid enough are the likes of David Alvarez, Brian d’Arcy James (playing Officer Krupke), and Corey Stoll (portraying Lieutenant Schrank). Then, there’s Ansel Elgort. Personal problems aside, he’s just not good at all in this flick. His singing is actually fine, but his acting is whiny and misguided. He truly sticks out like a sore thumb. Not only is Elgort distracting, he’s also miscast and turns in his roughest performance to date. The supporting cast includes Talia Ryder, among many others.

Director Steven Spielberg, along with scribe Tony Kushner, aren’t as precious with the story as you might expect. Now, this isn’t quite a re-imagining, but there’s a unique style on display. Visually, it’s a true highlight, seeing how it looks like something out of the 50s. Janusz Kaminski‘s cinematography is luminous, while utilizing Leonard Bernstein‘s music pays dividends. The singing outranks the dancing, but the musical aspects are all on point. Why we ever doubted Spielberg is beyond me. The pacing is a bit slack and some cuts would have been appreciated, but he’s clearly having a ball.

20th Century Studios

Oscar-wise, West Side Story should be able to score double-digit nominations. In terms of wins, however…that remains to be seen. Spielberg has been much better lately at seeing his films, as well as himself, become a nominee, as opposed to a winner. That being said, it does have at least an outside chance at winning Best Picture, so sure…it’s a threat.

West Side Story is about as good as a remake of the classic was ever going to be. If you’ve ever wondered what a Steven Spielberg musical would be like, this movie is your answer. It’s certainly entertaining, so missteps aside, it’s most definitely holiday season family fare. Especially if you like musicals and/or Spielberg, it’s one not to miss.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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