West Side Story film review (2021)

West Side Story is full of beautiful cinematography, set pieces, musical numbers, and performances. Steven Spielberg further proves he’s an all-time great by revitalizing a classic for a new generation and making it feel even more relevant today with its diverse casting and emotionally compelling story-telling.

I was one of many who thought a West Side Story remake wasn’t necessary. In all honesty, although the original released in the ’60s, it still holds up incredibly well, both aesthetically and how relevant the story still remains today. That being said, there are many ways to improve on it, especially with making the cast a bit more diverse and adding proper representation. I believe this is a big reason why Steven Spielberg wanted to reinvent it and bring it to an entirely new audience. He truly believed the themes the story touches on are more relatable today, which definitely makes sense in the grander scheme of things. Speaking more on the diversity, he also made sure the portrayals of these characters came from people who made the representation a bit more believable and, most importantly, from similar backgrounds. Prior to watching this, I never saw the original in its entirety. I was familiar with some of the songs, the impact the film had in its time (including with my parents), and how influential it still is today. After seeing it, I’m honestly embarrassed and disappointed since I consider myself a film buff, but never made the time to see the original. Spielberg’s iteration is, hands down, one of the best theater-going experiences I’ve had all year.

West Side Story follows the unlikely love story between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), who are both from two entirely different backgrounds and are linked to a group of gangs known as the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets and Sharks are in a constant battle for turf in the upper West Side of New York, and this conflict grows increasingly more challenging once Tony falls for Maria, the sister to the leader of the Sharks, the rival gang.

Right off the start, you’re introduced to the Jets, who feel are the rightful owners of the turf they’re claiming. Their fierce leader, Riff (Mike Faist), runs the show and is always scheming to see how he can get under the skin of the Sharks and get the upper hand when trying to take over the territory. The music that accompanies this entire opening scene is both fitting and equally catchy. It perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the movie and from there, it’s off to the races with a visually stunning, musically appealing, character driven, and story oriented spectacle. Let’s discuss the visuals (cinematography, set pieces, camera angles, scenery, etc.)

With Spielberg, I’ve come to expect films which are pleasing to the eye. Much of his work comes with expertly crafted camera work, visual effects, and direction. Some examples are Jaws, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, War of the Worlds, and most recently, Ready Player One. West Side Story is yet another example of his masterful creativity and I honestly believe it’s his best work, at least in this aspect, in years. You can see how he’s inspired by how the original ’60s version is shot in his iteration, but he also experimented with his own originality and creativity. Although it’s remade for both long-time fans and a new, modern audience, you can also see and feel the tone he’s going for. The film still feels old, in a sense, because of the different colors and themes he’s using. This is evident with the make-up and costume design as well. It’s how I imagine New York looked like back during that era, and being how father grew up New York, I’m sure he would share a similar opinion. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best looking films of the year.

As mentioned, I never saw the original version in its entirety. However, I’ve always been a huge fan of musicals and I’m somewhat familiar with the songs from West Side Story. Most of the songs are incredibly catchy, along with the dance numbers, which are amazingly choreographed. This is the kind of musical all kinds of audiences will enjoy since the music feels somewhat relatable and different than any other musical I’ve heard. I can see how the works that came after it were inspired by this one. One example where I feel I’ve heard the same sounds before is La La Land with all the different kinds of overtures and symphonic sounds it utilizes in a variety of its musical numbers. It also helps that the performances by the cast are spectacular.

Easily, the biggest standout for me is Mike Faist as Riff. It may be my bias talking since I’m a huge fan of the Dear Evan Hansen musical, where he plays Connor Murphy. His voice is definitely unique and a bit strange at first, but you begin to see how truly talented he is in the role of Riff with his dramatic beats and, at times, comedic timing. What surprised me the most is his dancing ability. He’s simply naturally gifted and it’s my favorite performance in the entire movie. He’s deeply committed to this role and it’s on full display.

Rachel Zegler is another young up-and-coming actress who is only beginning to reach her potential. Although her role as Maria may end up being one of the best of her career, I see it as more of a breakout performance where she’ll be able to land a number of different roles. Her singing voice is often times soothing and seemingly effortless. I can’t think of another actress who would’ve been able to fill Maria’s shoes as well as Zegler did. As for the overall performance, outside of singing, she’s phenomenal. Being that she’s a young lady in the film, she’s mature beyond her years, while also showcasing a ton of curiosity, a sense of adventure, and bravery. I would be surprised if she isn’t nominated when the time comes.

Next up is Arian DeBose as Anita, which is probably the role that comes with the most pressure. I mean, you’re trying to fill the shoes of the iconic and legendary Rita Moreno, who is one of the few who has earned an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony for her incredible work throughout her career. She’s also a Latina, which I feel is appropriate to mention because, you know, representation. As for DeBose, I think she steps into the role of Anita and does a fantastic job. I loved her portrayal of this character, adding a different kind of flair we haven’t seen yet, but still staying true to the character. She’s sassy, but also confident in who she is and won’t let anybody, not even her own boyfriend, Bernardo, tell her otherwise.

Speaking of Bernardo, portrayed by David Alvarez, he plays more of the macho man in the movie, similar to Riff. He’s overwhelmingly overprotective of his baby sister, Maria, and will do anything to make sure she’s safe. Alvarez, from a physical perspective, perfectly captures the essence of who Bernardo is. He’s supposed to be this intimidating force as the leader of the Sharks. I love how he’s perceived to be the polar opposite to the Jets’ Riff. But, in reality, at least to me, they have more in common than they realize. I think the movie showcases this very well with both of their performances, which is them both being fiercely loyal to their gang and their way of being. So, yes, two different lifestyles and paths, but similar attitudes and intentions.

The last character I want to go in depth with is Ansel Elgort’s Tony. Surprisingly enough, I feel most of his interactions with Maria are mostly carried by Zegler’s performance. Granted, he does a fine job with the material and I think it’s mostly because Tony isn’t that great of a character to begin with. In other words, I think any actor could’ve done well in this role, but I’m not sure they would be able to sing as well as Elgort does. I knew he could sing prior to this, but he’s really able to shine with some of the songs in this one. Overall, he does fairly good job, but I don’t think he does as well as everyone else.

As for some of the other characters, such as Rita Moreno’s Valentina, Brian d’arcy James’ Officer Krupke, Corey Stoll’s Lieutenant Schrank, and Josh Andres Rivera’s Chino, they’re all great with the screen time and material they’re given, but I wish there was more to them. In every film, there’s always going to be minor supporting roles and some characters simply serve the purpose of elevating another character. That being said, it’s bittersweet since I enjoyed these characters and there isn’t enough of them, in my opinion.

In a sense, the story is one we’ve seen before. Since it’s inspired by Romeo & Juliet, it’s a love story about two people who aren’t supposed to fall in love, but do, and they aren’t supposed to be together because of who they are and who they’re associated with. In reality, it’s a bit unrealistic how everything goes down since Tony and Maria practically fall in love at first sight and have this kind of relationship which, if you were ignorant to the fact, feels like they’ve known each other for years. Then again, I don’t think you can think too much into it since it is a film after all and the overall seriousness of the story severely trumps the silliness and overly-dramatized moments.

As a viewer, I was emotionally invested in this story and its characters. I didn’t see the original, so I went in pretty blind about what it’s all about and I was left a bit shocked and broken, if I’m being honest. Some big time narrative decisions happen so fast and abruptly and I didn’t really expect it. You think it’s going one way, but then it goes south almost instantly. I wish my parents would’ve prepared me a bit more for those moments. It’s really my own fault though since West Side Story has been around for almost 70 years, so I can’t cry spoiler.

Even outside of the main story, which is the relationship between Tony and Maria, I was also pulled in by the conflict between the two gangs. I’m sure it was relevant in its time, but in many ways, with how society currently is, I think it’s even more relevant today. The themes it touches on, such as the discrimination with the Latino community and groups of people from different backgrounds refusing to get along, feels, in many ways, almost real and genuine to what I see nowadays. Still, during “The Rumble” musical number, you see glimpses of humanity from both sides, such as Tony pleading with Bernardo and Riff to make peace with each other and their groups, as well as when Bernardo accidentally stabs Riff, you can see in his face and reaction that, deep down, he didn’t want it to go down that way. Even in the final scene when Chino murders Tony, you see both members of the Jets and the Sharks come together to carry his body away. The whole film touches on conflict between two different gangs, but at the end of the day, they come together when it matters the most, and I think many audiences from around the world can learn from this.

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story proves this musical continues to stand the test of time. The story is still as important as it ever was and I believe this new version will continue to inspire viewers from all walks of life. Sure, some of the narrative decisions are overly dramatic and borderline unrealistic, but everything else is a marvel. The performances, from top to bottom, are some of the best of the year, the film is gorgeous to look at, and the music is, to this day, as good and as memorable as it has ever been. It’s, easily, one of my favorite films of the year and should have a plenty of success come awards season.

Score: A

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