West Side Story – Movie Review

West Side Story

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Writer: Tony Kushner
  • Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist

Grade: B+

Steven Spielberg has conquered nearly every genre throughout his illustrious career: from horror to comedy, from kid-friendly adventures to sci-fi, from Oscar bait dramas to summer blockbusters. Yet somehow he’s never tackled a Broadway musical. His adaptation of West Side Story is finally seeing theaters after being delayed in 2020, and the wait has paid off. Of all the musicals coming to theaters and streaming this year, Speilberg’s latest was one of the most anticipated. But why would the celebrated director choose to remake one of the most celebrated musicals of all time, one that won 10 of the 11 Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture, in 1961? Spielberg has stated his desire to adapt one of Broadway’s musicals and that the West Side Story soundtrack was a staple in his home when growing up. Ever the source of the nostalgia of his childhood, the film feels like a natural choice for him under that lens (the end credits even reveal that the film is dedicated to his father, who died in 2020)

It’s true that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ version of the film cast mostly white actors as the Puerto Rican characters, which could be reason enough to make an update. It’s also true that Spielberg’s budget is gargantuan compared to that of the 1961 film ($6.7 million versus $100 million), which would allow him to make a bigger, flashier film.

20th Century Studios

Spielberg’s version, with a script from Tony Kushner (whom he worked with on Munich and Lincoln), leans pretty faithfully to the source material, with few narrative changes. Some would say that the change in American racial dynamics and gang culture would warrant an updated subplot or observation, but those elements are mostly missing. But what the film lacks in social commentary, it makes up for in dazzling visuals. Dance sequences, choreographed by Justin Peck, are big and energetic, including a massive group number in a gymnasium featuring the entire cast. And “America”, a song confined to a single location in the original film, energetically darts through bustling streets and from one set to another. Most Broadway adaptations are meant to be seen on big screens, but West Side Story is one of the year’s most visually exciting films.

For the uninitiated, the musical was conceived as a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” set in 1950s New York. The Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) battle for control of their neighborhood with the white Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist). Tony (Ansel Elgort), Riff’s best friend and former co-leader of the Jets, wants no part of their conflict after returning from prison but falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), who just happens to be Bernardo’s sister. Elgort and Zegler perform amicably here, and have decent chemistry together to sell their star-crossed romance. If this is Zegler’s first film performance, she’s truly meant for great things. Her youthful face and stature (she’s dwarfed by Elgort’s hulking frame) is a natural fit for Maria, willing to dive headfirst into a new romance, which she plays into naturally. But the real standouts are Alvarez as Bernardo and Ariana DeBose as Anita, his girlfriend. DeBose especially takes over in the third act, when Anita’s arc comes to a dramatic head. It’s a tall order to step into the shoes of George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, who both won Oscars for their performances, but both manage to live up to expectations. Moreno even returns in a small role as a shopkeeper that serves as a motherly figure for Tony and gives the film a touching lightness.

20th Century Studios

By the time the final credits roll, I don’t know if Spielberg has truly answered the question of why a remake to West Side Story was necessary. Fortunately, the film has nuanced its depictions of racism inherent in the Jets’ crusade against the Sharks. The musical sequences are all staged fantastically, with Spielberg’s gift for blocking evident once again, along with Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, which brings every scene to vibrant life.

West Side Story naturally invites comparisons to this year’s other Broadway adaptation featuring the struggles of the Latinx community, In the Heights. Both films include musical interludes on a grand scale, with unique visuals and choreography, but Heights dipped more into the fantastical with CGI sequences. Modern musicals wouldn’t be the same without West Side Story, and modern movies wouldn’t be the same without Steven Spielberg. Though his latest may not rank near the top of his lengthy filmography, at 74 years old, Spielberg hasn’t lost a step, providing an energetic piece of entertainment that families and musical enthusiasts can enjoy during the holiday season.

OSCAR POTENTIAL:

  • The sky is truly the limit with this film. I could see a scenario where it receives the most nominations of any film. Even the least memorable Spielberg offerings tend to over-perform with the Academy. And, since the 1961 cleaned up at the Oscars, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a bevy of nominations again. Best Picture feels likely. If it wins, it would be the first film to win twice.
  • West Side Story is well directed, and the Academy loves Spielberg, so I think a Best Director nomination is also likely.
  • DeBose and Martinez could find themselves nominated for Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor, respectively, especially since their predecessors won for the same roles. I had hopes that Zegler could land a Lead Actress nomination, but I think her youth will work against her and her spot will go to a more seasoned actress. No matter; she’ll get her due sooner or later.
  • Cinematography and Costume Design are incredibly tough fields to crack this year. 20th Century Studios (which is owned by Disney) could campaign hard for both, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it receives nominations for both, but I think it’s more likely to win in Costume Design.
  • Believe it or not, I think the category that West Side Story is most likely to win is Best Editing. The Academy likes to reward flashy editing, like in La La Land and Whiplash, and this film’s dance sequences feature some of the flashiest editing of the year.
  • It’s not clear to me if any new songs were created for this version (a semi-common practice for Broadway adaptations) but if there is, it could likely receive a Best Original Song nomination.

West Side Story premieres in theaters on December 10.

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