Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ is a powerful reimagining of a classic

By Olivia Rosenberg, Assistant buzz Editor

With vibrancy and heart, Steven Spielberg takes Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s vivacious and heartbreaking “West Side Story” and creates a fresh, admirable retelling. The story, inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” finds new depth and character in the 2021 remake of both the 1957 Broadway production and the 1961 film adaptation. 

Since its release on Dec. 10, the film has already gained a significant amount of critical acclaim. It gained four nominations at the 79th Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, Best Supporting Actress, Best Lead Actress — Musical or Comedy and Best Director. Additionally, it received 11 nominations at the 27th Critics Choice Awards, including Best Picture, with the most number of nominations out of any film, tied with Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast.” 

Spielberg had shown interest in creating a second film adaptation of the show in the past few years as the musical had a significant impact on his life as a child. It wasn’t until he joined forces with playwright Tony Kushner that the story began to come to life in his own imaginings.

While still being accurate to the musical’s original content, the film has a clear Spielberg-shaped footprint in its creation as its heart and soul are felt by audiences through the screen. There is a level of care that was put into the making of “West Side Story,” which is more than evident upon viewing. 

For being Spielberg’s first time directing a musical, it seems as though he already knew the ropes. All the technical aspects of the film were done almost impeccably. Janusz Kamiński’s work as cinematographer was outstanding as every shot painted a picture with beautiful symbolism, and there was clear, detailed attention to every frame.

Though a few songs were sung live on set, the ones that were pre-recorded were mixed well and didn’t feel too produced as many musical movies run the risk of being. 

The music in “West Side Story” is brilliant enough to hold its own without anything behind it, but in this film, it is brought to an entirely new level. David Newman’s arrangement of Bernstein’s music brought the notes to life while keeping everything intact. Extravagant dance numbers were energetic and captivating while ballads were just as engaging and interesting.

Numbers like “America” and “The Dance at the Gym” had incredible choreography with even more impressive dancers executing it. Casting talented actors who can also dance professionally truly makes a difference, and it shows in this film. 

The casting of the film has been a large topic of discussion since the beginning of production in 2019. Ansel Elgort’s casting as Tony continues to be a controversial aspect of the film after multiple sexual assault allegations came forward against him in 2020.

Because the film was already shot by the time these serious issues were made public, Elgort was unfortunately stuck in “West Side Story.” In terms of his performance, it wasn’t anything special in the least. The role of Tony has been known in the past to be a pretty dull one and a plot device at best; Elgort’s portrayal only added to Tony’s insignificance. 

Opposite of Elgort was newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria. Making her film debut, Zegler dazzled as she did what Elgort failed to do: evolve Maria into a character much more interesting than who she was written to be. With her songbird voice and doe-like eyes, every moment Zegler had on screen, she stole with grace and fearlessness. 

However, the real stars that elevated “West Side Story” to the next level are found in the supporting cast. Rita Moreno, playing a new character to the story called Valentina, brings the musical to life for the second time after her performance as Anita in 1961. Her legacy with the show lives on this adaptation and shines brighter than ever before.

Following in Moreno’s footsteps, Ariana DeBose gives one of the best performances of the year as a resilient and fiery Anita. DeBose blossoms in this role as she not only showcases her dancing and singing abilities built from years on Broadway but also her masterful acting that has yet to be seen in this capacity before. 

Rounding out the cast as the two relentless gang leaders, Riff and Bernardo, Mike Faist and David Alvarez create the most interesting and multifaceted aspects of the entire film. Alvarez gives Bernado integrity, grit and, most importantly, love. He showcases a side of the Sharks that wasn’t previously seen in any other adaptation.

Faist is the perfect Riff; his dancing, voice and mannerisms all come together to superlatively embody the iconic role that is so central to the core narrative. The scenes where Faist and Alvarez share the screen are truly the highlights of the film. 

Though many expected “West Side Story” not to come close to touching the original, there is a spark in Spielberg’s adaptation that gives it the momentum to surpass its predecessor. Not only does it pay tribute to the original musical, it also grows the story to extend its themes to more audiences. To its credit, the 2021 “West Side Story” adaptation should be considered the blueprint for all movie musicals going forward. 

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