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West Side Story (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Brian d'Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andrés Rivera, Iris Means, Mike Iveson, Jamila Velazquez, Annelise Cepero, Yassmin Alers, Jamie Harris, Curtiss Cook, David Avilés Morales, Sebastian Serra, Ricardo A. Zayas, Sean Harrison Jones, Jess LeProtto, Patrick Higgins, Kyle Allen, Ana Isabelle, Tanairi Sade Vazquez, Yesenia Ayala, Eloise Kropp, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Leigh-Ann Esty, Harvey Evans, Bert Michaels and David Bean.

Screenplay by Tony Kushner.

Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Distributed by 20th Century Studios. 156 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Steven Spielberg has been toying with the idea of making a film musical for most of his career, but shockingly over all these decades he has never actually done it. Well, Spielberg has never been a timid filmmaker, but even for him he is setting the bar pretty high now that he has taken the leap – remaking arguably the most iconic musical of the last century.

And now, in a very good year for musicals with the terrific likes of In the Heights, Cyrano and Tick Tick… Boom, Spielberg has made the best musical of the year. In fact, it may very well be the best movie of the year.

Yes, it’s that good. Not only is Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story as terrific as the classic 1961 original film, in some ways it is even better. This film was obviously a labor of love for Spielberg (in the closing credits the film was dedicated “For Dad”) and has brought out his best as a filmmaker. In Spielberg’s case, that is some pretty high praise, indeed.

The new West Side Story – with a screenplay by Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame – is mostly very faithful to the original storyline. However, even though the film still takes place in the early 1960s, sixty years of hindsight allow Spielberg to make certain things explicit which had to be somewhat downplayed in 1961 – the racial hatred, the violence, the extreme poverty, the squalor, the destitution, the sexual mores of the time.

All of those things were also present in the original, but the filmmakers had to skirt the issues more. The new West Side Story puts them right in your face. These are a bunch of deluded, angry losers, fighting against a world they did not create, stuck in the slums of New York’s West Side (specifically, their neighborhood is slowly being torn down to build the Lincoln Center, so it is the area around the 65th and Broadway), where only friendship and love make life worth living.

Well, those, and music and dance. The score to West Side Story – written by Leonard Bernstein and the recently passed Stephen Sondheim – is one of the great musical scores of all time. Most musicals are lucky to have one or two songs steep into the public consciousness. Every single song in West Side Story – “Maria,” “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight,” “Jet Song” and more – are rightfully considered musical standards.

Wisely, Spielberg recognized that these songs and the dancing were classics, and mostly he changed up the way the songs were presented. For example, rather than a rooftop dance-off, the new version of “America” spills out into the city streets and becomes a huge almost flash mob. Also, having brought in the original film star Rita Moreno to play a new character – the widow of the store owner Doc from the first film – it is only natural that they would want to give her a song. What is a bit of a surprise is that they allowed her to sing female lead Maria’s showcase tune – “Somewhere” – and Moreno unsurprisingly nails it.

Don’t feel too bad for Rachel Zegler, the extraordinary talent who plays Maria, though. (Zegler was discovered on YouTube after a casting search of over 30,000 people.) Zegler gets more than enough opportunities to shine in her role and she is completely up to the task. If this film does not make her a star, there is something wrong in the world.

Her true love Tony is played by the only quote-unquote star in the film, Ansel Elgort of Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver. He also acquits himself admirably. His vocal range is a bit limited compared to Zegler, but his vocals were still very good.

Other lesser-known talents who shine are Ariana DeBose as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo, Mike Faist as Riff.

And, needless to say, as West Side Story was based on Romeo and Juliet, the ending is still devastating.

Get ready to see West Side Story included on many best-of lists for the film’s movies and don’t be at all surprised if it approaches the original’s Oscar haul (the 1961 film was nominated for 10 Oscars and won all of them). More importantly, get ready to see West Side Story on the big screen, where it belongs.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: December 10, 2021.


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