West Side Story Review: Spielberg's Adaption is a Cinematic Encore!

There have many love stories to shape both pop culture as well as storytelling in general, and among these tales is none other than Romeo and Juliet. The classic play by William Shakespeare has been a staple for romance stories and has gone to inspire a variety of tales; and among them is none other than the hit Broadway show: West Side Story. The musical by the team of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim has been a pivotal show on Broadway since it debuted in 1957. Yet the show was not only a success on stage but on the big screen as well as in 1961 the musical became a feature presentation directed Robert Wise as well as Jerome Robbins. The show proved to be a success on the silver screen as it was on Broadway as the film was nominated for 11 academy awards and won 10 of those awards; and among these awards was none other than Best Picture. With the film having such accolades, it is hard to imagine West Side Story would ever be readapted for the big screen, but that is precisely what happened as a new version of the film hit theaters in the holiday season of 2021.

The new film’s plot follows the original story thoroughly as former Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler) the sister of Shark leader Bernado (David Alvarez). Perhaps the biggest difference between this film and its 1961 counterpart is that the movie is directed by none other than iconic filmmaker Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg, who has wanted to direct a musical for some time now, decided to helm this new take and see whether the classic musical is as impactful as it was in 1957. Even with Spielberg’s involvement, bringing West Side Story back to the silver screen was a major undertaking; but all the same I was intrigued in seeing what Spielberg would do with the musical. From my own experience with the show (seeing it both on stage and in celluloid) I was curious to see how the 2021 film would stand among its legacy, and I must say that this new take proved to be as pivotal to the musical genre as its predecessor was.

As retellings go, this rendition of West Side Story follows the story through and through. While knowing a story’s events can take away from the overall experience, I find that how a story plays out can make all the difference in the world, and that was evident in this new movie. Each moment from the show, like the first meeting of Tony and Maria, had as much impact as they did in past renditions. Though this is not to say that the film’s plot had some differences as details like the preparation for the rumble or having the Puerto Ricans being bilingual gave this story its own distinctions. If this rendition proved anything it was that the tale behind West Side Story is timeless as the tale of the 2021 film had as much impact as it did in 1961.

Along with its memorable tale, West Side Story is known for its impressionable cast. Each character brings something to the show which, if done right, can make for a standout ensemble; and the cast of the 2021 film proved this point. The cast was solid from top to bottom with each member standing out in some form or fashion. In the case of the star-crossed lovers both Tony and Maria were solid leads, and their chemistry was fitting for both the movie and its legacy. Though Rachel Zegler’s role as Maria was particularly memorable and seeing that this was her film debut it was a good start for the actress. Along with the stellar leads, the movie also featured an impressive array of supporting characters. Characters like Bernado, Riff (Mike Faist) and Anita (Ariana DeBose) were satisfying and in some ways stole the show while the likes of Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) were fitting additions-though Stoll’s time on screen was limited. Bringing the ensemble together was Rita Moreno as Valentina whose solid role as Tony’s confidant brought a sense of complexity to this well-constructed cast.

Having a solid story and cast is certainly works to this movie’s favor, but the one area this movie needed to succeed in was its music. The music of West Side Story features some of the most memorable numbers of all of Broadway, so the new movie had a lot to live up to and it not only met these standards but exceeded all expectations. Each song had as much flare and rhythm as they did in the 1961 movie and proved to be as timeless as the story itself. However, where this movie differs in its musical numbers was in their execution and it made the difference. Thanks to the both the cinematography and overall direction, the presentation of each song brought a unique style to each number with the likes of “Maria”, “Officer Krupke” and “Tonight” being just some of the highlights for the movie. Because of its presentation, the music of this rendition not only lived up to the musical but exceeded even the 1961 film.

Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story is a cinematic encore. Between its solid cast and keen direction this movie brought the musical to life in a way that was both new and familiar. There were some issues to be had, like the delivery of aspects, but these faults were minor to say the least and hardly hurt the overall film. Spielberg showed that West Side Story is as relevant today as it was when it debuted on Broadway, and this adaptation is not only commendable to its respected genre but easily one of the best films of 2021.

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