WEST SIDE STORY review

by Taylor T. Carlson



WEST SIDE STORY is directed by Stephen Spielberg. It stars Ansel Elgor, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and Rita Moreno. The film is based on the classic 1957 stage musical, itself inspired by William Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET. The musical had previously been adapted as a film in 1961, directed by Robert Wise.


In 1950s New York City, amid rubble and ruins slated to be demolished for a new housing project, two rival gangs regularly clash - The Jets, consisting of White Americans, and The Sharks, consisting of Puerto Rican immigrants who came to the States seeking a better life. Tony, a member of The Jets who did prison time following a fight with a rival gang member, who has settled into a working-class life, finds himself smitten with the beautiful Maria, who also happens to be the sister of Bernardo, the leader of The Sharks. The two want nothing more than to pursue their romance, but with a rumble between the two gangs on the horizon, will there be any way to stop the violence so the two can pursue their love?


WEST SIDE STORY is one of the most famous and successful musicals of all time, and the prior film adaptation directed by Robert Wise was a massive success in its own right. I'll be the first to admit I'm not someone who follows musicals closely, but even I was a fan of the prior film, and I was ecstatic to hear this new cinematic adaptation would be directed by none other than Stephen Spielberg, a legend in Hollywood who always goes the extra mile to create iconic movies. While his adaptation of WEST SIDE STORY was delayed considerably due to recent world events, the end result is a fantastic old-fashioned musical with great musical renditions and choreography, mostly excellent casting and performances, and believable set-pieces that transport viewers to 1950s New York City.


WEST SIDE STORY looks and sounds like an instant classic in every single moment of its duration. The renditions of these classic songs are as catchy and relevant as ever despite their age, and Spielberg's film truly feels like and captures the grit of the slums and ruins of New York City's less desirable locales. Upon seeing the dances and the action on screen, one must wonder how many takes it truly got to get these moments perfect for the cinematic screen. When creating a film adaptation of a musical, it can be difficult to bring together all the elements perfectly. I'm happy to say Spielberg's movie doesn't disappoint. There have been many news articles regarding the decision to use un-subtitled Spanish in several scenes, though I personally wasn't bothered by this decision. If anything I think it helps better immerse the viewer in the setting.


Casting and the performances of these actors and actresses are mostly satisfying. Rita Moreno, who'd previously portrayed Anita in 1961 film, appears here as Valentina, a revised version of the Doc character from the original story. These changes are for the best, and Moreno largely serves as the glue that holds this story together and keeps everything grounded. The greatest standout of the cast is Rachel Zegler as Maria; this beautiful young lady steals the show every time she's on screen, and I have no doubt she'll have a fantastic film career in the years to come. Her performance gives the movie's latter act even more gravity and impact. Nearly as good is Ariana DeBose as Anita, serving as something of a mentor figure and guardian to Maria. The only weak link in the cast is Ansel Elgort as Tony; this film fan didn't for one second believe him as someone who served prison time for nearly killing someone. The young man looks a bit too angelic and his performance is a bit on the wooden side. It's the one weakness in otherwise stellar casting; Elgort is great in other films but just feels out of place here. He's the one actor in the movie not believable as a gang member, whereas everyone else seems perfectly cast, convincing, and dangerous when the script calls for it.


While WEST SIDE STORY is mostly a success, it does struggle slightly in the pacing department and with character development. Many characters on both sides feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional. Perhaps the biggest disappointment here is the love interests of The Jets; they're barely in the movie, and the few times they have to step in during dramatic moments, their performances carry no weight on account of their lack of prior development. The pacing is often inconsistent; in one scene we see a shocking, hard-hitting scene, and a little later we discover the unpleasant aftermath when the related parties are informed. And in between, we have the "I Feel Pretty" musical number, which feels like it's totally in the wrong place and inappropriate for this point of the movie (I'm not familiar with the original musical and haven't seen the original film adaptation in years). One can't help but feel that this would've been better moved to a different place in the film. There are a few instances throughout the movie regarding pacing issues and the like, but for the most part, the movie balances its running time well and doesn't feel boring; no easy task for a musical in 2021.


WEST SIDE STORY succeeds thanks to Spielberg's direction, top-notch performances and choreography, and themes and songs that still hit hard even today. It's good old-fashioned musical entertainment despite a few minor shortcomings. Fans shouldn't be disappointed with the results. A highly recommended movie!