Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Premise: An adaptation of the stage musical. White and Puerto Rican gangs battle for control of the streets in a New York City borough. Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) fall in love and their relationship pushes the gangs to a showdown.
What Works: The new version of West Side Story is a smart update of the material. This is a beloved musical and the filmmakers preserve what audiences have loved about this show. The new film is still Romeo and Juliet in 1950s New York City but what’s so exceptional about 2021’s West Side Story is the way it takes familiar material created over half a century ago and makes it feel contemporary but not anachronistic. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has added new details that add texture and context to the story. West Side Story is a tale of star-crossed love set against a background of racial conflict. The tribal element is brought forward and the film plays as a warning of the ways racial animus destroys and debases everything it touches. The film is made with great style and energy. 2021’s West Side Story is an excellent example of adapting a stage show to the screen and making it cinematic. The camera movement and the choreography of the dancers is masterfully blocked. The musical numbers are exciting action sequences but they also advance the story and develop the characters; the way the dancers move or react to each other reflects the conflicts of the story. The Puerto Rican characters speak a mix of English and Spanish but the film does not use subtitles. This makes the movie more cinematic as it forces non-Spanish speaking viewers to focus on the action; the meaning of the scene is easily decipherable whether or not the viewer understands the language. The film has a few great performances. Rachel Zegler stars as Maria and Zeglar conveys optimism and innocence but also intelligence. She’s also a terrific singer. Equally impressive is Ariana DeBose as Anita. Her character is complex and DeBose is given some of the film’s most difficult scenes.
What Doesn’t: The second half of West Side Story isn’t quite as strong as the first. The film suffers from some inelegant shifts in tone. The rumble between the Sharks and the Jets is quite violent and has serious consequences but that set piece is immediately followed by the much lighter “I Feel Pretty” musical number. The contrast is jarring and the song feels out of place. The final scene of West Side Story lacks the energy of the rest of the movie. The climax is staged in a way that feels preordained. The weakest cast member is Ansel Elgort as Tony. Elgort does all right in the role but everyone around him is so much better and Elgort’s romantic chemistry with Rachel Zegler simmers instead of boils.
Bottom Line: West Side Story is Steven Spielberg’s best film in over a decade. The movie possesses a distinct visual style and includes some smart additions to the source material that make this a worthwhile adaptation of the stage musical.
Episode: #883 (December 19, 2021)