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‘West Side Story’ Review

Disclaimer: This review contains some spoilers.

Steven Spielberg has done it again. Throughout his 50-year career, Spielberg has tackled numerous kinds of films and subject matters- historical profiles (Lincoln, Schindler’s List), science fiction (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A.I. Artificial Intelligence), adventure (Indiana Jones), and fantasy (E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The BFG). However, there is one thing that is consistent in each film he has made: heart. Spielberg consistently injects his movies with a heart and spirit that is distinctly him. West Side Story, his first musical, maintains that heart which we have come to expect.

Read: Advance Tickets For ‘West Side Story’ on Sale

From the opening frames of West Side Story, we know that we are in for something different than the 1961 Robert Wise-directed film that won 10 Academy Awards. Though it was critically acclaimed at the time, it had obvious problems, many of which were products of its time. For instance, Natalie Wood, though a talented actress, was wrongly cast as Maria. She, along with many other members of the cast, was a white actor playing a Puerto Rican character. Looking back, the film remains an accurate reproduction of the Broadway production- but terribly outdated. This time around, Spielberg casts the film authentically, with Latin American actors playing the roles for the Puerto Rican characters.

It would be inappropriate to get any further in this review without discussing legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who passed away last week. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story in 1956, marking it the first Broadway production for the 26-year-old (he was 27 when the show opened on Broadway). Sondheim famously disliked the lyrics he wrote for this show, a fact that he brought up numerous times in interviews throughout his long career. His lyrics remain mostly unchanged and intact for this film, though a few changes are present (a somewhat outdated verse in “I Feel Pretty” is omitted, for example).

In this version, Maria is played by newcomer Rachel Zegler, who won out the role of Maria from an array of thousands. Zegler comes from a Columbian background and steps into the role with both grace and power. She sings with a strength and ease that is more common for a seasoned Broadway veteran than an 18-year-old newcomer. In fact, she largely out sings the rest of the cast, with the exception of Ariana DeBose, who plays her sister-in-law, Anita. She also is an incredible actress, who more than carries her own throughout.

Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

DeBose herself has already had a string of tremendous performances within the last year where she has shown off her talent to the world, such as in The Prom and Schmigadoon! However, this may be the film that puts her on the map and makes her a bona fide movie star. She dazzles every time she is onscreen, whether she be acting, singing or dancing- often all at once! Her performance is powerful and sticks in one’s mind long after the credits roll. The same can be said for Rita Moreno’s Valentina. Moreno played Anita in the 1961 film and plays a newly created character here: the widow of Doc, the owner of the drug store. She is given the song “Somewhere” and performs it beautifully within a new context. In fact, almost every song has been given a new context within the story. This is thanks, in large part, to Tony Kushner’s screenplay. Kushner has carefully updated the story to make it more authentic and pertinent to our current climate, yet still allowing it to remain in the 1950s setting. This results in subtle character changes across the board, such as parallels between the Maria/Tony relationship and Doc and Valentina.

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Kushner’s script is what sets it most apart from the 1961 film, which was largely just a direct transfer of the Broadway production to the screen. The script is nuanced and mostly improves on the original. The new contexts for the songs occur with varying degrees of success. “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “One Hand, One Heart” are two standouts in terms of new settings and staging. However, “I Feel Pretty” now feels completely out of place, occurring after a hugely emotional scene and much too late in the story for it to land effectively.

One unique- and welcome- aspect of this film is its use of Spanish. A significant amount of the dialogue is in Spanish and none of it is subtitled. Spielberg and Kushner know when to use the language to communicate authenticity and power, which elevates the material. Another new touch is the way Kushner handled the character of Anybodys, who was really a throwaway character in the original. Here, Anybodys has a new character arc which is much more satisfying. Mike Faist, as unassuming as he is at first glance, makes the character of Riff completely his own and is a charismatic and natural leader for the Jets. One can understand why people follow his lead! David Alvarez is equally good as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks and Maria’s brother. The balance between the love he has for his family and the hate he has for the Jets is present in every scene and makes his performance all the more powerful.

Mike Faist as Riff in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Then there is the question of Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony. Most people reading this review are probably aware of his sexual abuse allegations that came out in 2020, after this movie had already been filmed. As for his performance, he is certainly a weak link, for better or for worse. In a film with consistently knockout performances, it is those that are average that stick out. Though Elgort is charming, charm cannot alone carry his portion of the film. It is clear from his vocal techniques that he is not a strong singer. Watching him closely in several of the musical numbers reveal a lack of control in his voice, which he attempts to remedy by shaking his head to create vibrato. Trained singers know that this is simply bad form.

Ultimately though, West Side Story is breathtaking. Every frame of the film has been crafted by artists who love the material and wanted to do it right. And they did.