“West Side Story” stars Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, and Rita Moreno. Released on December 10, 2021, the film has two teenagers from different street gangs falling in love in 1950s New York City.
The film was directed by Steven Spielberg, who also directed films such as “Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Saving Private Ryan”. It is based on the Broadway musical of the same name by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim. Hollywood sure loves music these days, especially during awards season. Throughout the year’s fourth quarter, I’ve seen a few musicals that managed to enchant me with their catchy songs and storytelling, primarily last month’s “Tick, Tick…Boom”. Today, we see this streak coming to an end, and it’s up to the great Steven Spielberg to conclude it with a bang. His latest film revisits the iconic stage musical that’s best described as Romeo and Juliet in the 1950s. Of course, this isn’t the first time the musical was adapted for the big screen. Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins had translated the play into a full-length feature back in 1961, which proved to be just as successful as its source material. That film was so popular that it won 10 out of 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, the most in movie musical history. Sixty years later, Spielberg is looking to repeat history with his own take on the story that’s as historic as William Shakespeare. As you all may have known, any film that the filmmaker is involved in is an instant must-see for me, and this film is no exception despite my lack of experience with the musical. Was it able to make us fall in love with the source material all over again? Let’s find out.
The film is set in 1950s New York City, where two street gangs fight for control of San Juan Hill on Manhattan’s West Side. The two gangs are the Jets, a white gang led by Riff (Faist), and the Sharks, a group of Puerto Ricans led by Bernardo (Alvarez). One day, at a school dance, a young woman from the Sharks, Maria (Zegler), meets and falls in love with Tony (Elgort), a Jet member. Their relationship puts a massive strain on the two gangs that will stop at nothing to break them apart. Tony and Maria will have to keep their love alive amid their rivalry. Like the 1961 version, the story offered plenty of familiar elements from Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy but had a few differences to make it stand out from the Shakespearian tale that inspired it. As I mentioned earlier, I had not seen the musical and had not watched the 1961 film, so consider this my first experience with the source material. I went into this film having strong confidence that Spielberg would make this experience memorable for me, and to no one’s surprise, the cinematic master has done just that. As a film adaptation, “West Side Story” is a beautifully made and infectious musical that honors the source material’s social themes and narrative. As a film that stands on its own, it’s an engaging and heartfelt tragedy about a doomed love that shines in the middle of hatred and selfishness. If you happened to watch the Broadway musical or the original film, or even both, you’d pretty much know how the story will turn out in the end. However, that doesn’t make the journey even less emotional or nostalgic for its fans. The way I see “West Side Story”, I believe that people who grew up with the other adaptations would adore the heck out of Spielberg’s version. For newcomers like myself, they’ll enjoy it because of Spielberg’s old-fashioned style, the music, and relatable storytelling. I happened to find it relatable because of how poorly specific people from different heritages are treated, especially in the 50s. The love between Tony and Maria was the only thing that lit up the darkness, only to be destroyed by the two groups’ selfish beliefs. This narrative should be seen as a warning about what would happen if this hatred didn’t cease. Whether that is the case or not, I found the film to be a thought-provoking and tragic love story that didn’t rely on sugarcoating its themes. While the film did drag a bit thanks to its 156-minute runtime, it ran at a respectable pace while delivering plenty of immersion and flair in its musical numbers and production design. More importantly, the cast managed to keep things both entertaining and lively. Even though Ansel Elgort’s performance wasn’t anything too special, he was still able to provide a shining moment or two every time he was on screen. Rachel Zegler, who made her first feature film debut, was honestly one of the best parts of “West Side Story”. From her impressive acting talent to her beautiful singing, Zegler made a successful leap from YouTube to the big screen. She’s already attached to star in two more films in the future, such as the live-action adaptation of “Snow White”, and I’m already interested in seeing if she can continue that trend with those roles. Ariana DeBose also did a great job with her role as Anita, and Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 film, was definitely awards-worthy regarding her performance as Valentina. Another element that impressed me the most was its cinematography. If there’s one thing that Spielberg is good at nowadays, it’s providing a style that combines old-school cinema with modern aesthetics. This has to be one of the best-looking films the director has made. The lighting, the wide-angle shots, pretty much everything perfectly resembled the look and feel of watching a film from the good old days. I don’t think I can describe anything else about it other than the fact that it’s so darn beautiful to witness. The music also played a big part in “West Side Story”, which makes sense since it is a musical. As a newcomer, I thought the music was superb. Leonard Bernstein’s musical score was full of energy and life, and Spielberg handled the musical numbers exceptionally well. These scenes gave off a suitable feeling of watching a Broadway musical coming to life without going far-fetched with their presentations. I also happened to enjoy the dancing sequences, mainly due to Justin Peck’s choreography, even though some of them were a part of the film’s beefy length.
Overall, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” sang and danced its way to my heart and soul with its beauty and ambition in tow. Aside from its length and Elgort’s less-than-stellar performance, the film is an excellent piece of musical cinema that’s gorgeous in its scope and emotionally riveting in its narrative. With its remarkable cast, Spielberg’s direction, great cinematography, strong plot, and entertaining musical numbers, “West Side Story” concludes 2021’s slate of movie musicals on a satisfying note, or should I say, “musical note”? If you grew up watching the 1961 film or if you’re a fan of Spielberg’s other works, this film is definitely worth checking out this holiday season.