West Side Story Review: Spielberg’s take is a heartfelt homage to the timelessness of love and tragedy
Steven Spielberg is truly a jack of all trades director that’s been able to turn just about anything into a must-see blockbuster. Spielberg’s done big war epics, turned book adaptations into major blockbusters, and directed some of the most notable Oscar-winning films in recent history. Every time you look at his filmography, it’s hard not to find something you didn’t realize he’s done and the way that he’s touched basically every genre in film is undoubtedly impressive. Now, he’s delved into a new genre for the first time with his take on the renowned Broadway musical West Side Story.
Given Spielberg’s wide genre range, it’s pretty crazy that West Side Story is his first musical, but he really brings all the right pieces together to make it a masterful adaptation. Right from the first scene, West Side Story instantly cements itself as the most beautiful and visually engaging film of the year. The mix of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, Paul Tazewell’s costume design, and Spielberg’s vision is unparalleled with the depth of color and detail they create.
The persisting bright, vivid colors of the Puerto Rican Sharks acts as this great representation of Latin American culture in the reds and yellows in the costume design and the hopes they have in making a place of their own in America. Their rival street gang, the White Jets, is shown the opposite with these bleaker grays, blacks, and blues, to reflect their rise from the rubble of their former homes and their generally dour outlooks on their lives. The most impactful and complex visual though is in West Side Story’s crumbling San Juan Hill setting as it connects these two feuding street gangs in ways even they don’t understand fully.
Although they believe themselves to be the powers that run the streets, they’re really just pawns pitted against one another by higher powers. The Jets might believe that the Sharks have stripped away their culture and forced them to live amongst the rubble of their old home, but city officials continually ordering buildings to be demolished for landmarks that cater to richer, white citizens are really what keeps them down. As for the Sharks, even though they’ve found ways to prosper they are still targeted by the early stages of gentrification and the police who influence and groom the racist beliefs of the Jets. All these aspects are weaved excellently through the visually compelling setting that manages to feel like a big boisterous environment found in a Spielberg blockbuster, yet intimate and real.
It’s a setting fitting for the Romeo and Juliet love story of Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) that blossoms after they meet at a local dance as the tensions between the Jets and Sharks boil over. For the most part, the story remains the same as Maria and Tony struggle to maintain their love since they come from different sides, Maria being the younger sister to the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) and Tony being the former leader of the Jets that now butts heads with new leader Riff (Mike Faist).
Even for West Side Story being such a renowned play and having a film adaptation in 1961, it’s crazy how this story still manages to surprise you and stay relevant. The tragedy that strikes from the fallout of the Jets and Sharks’ big rumble absolutely rocks you and the cultural aspects of the story strike harder with the ongoing racial discrimination within the US. The songs from Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein feel nostalgic and timeless. The choreography from Justin Peck is just a visual marvel to watch in the excellent settings used throughout the film. As nostalgic as Spielberg’s West Side Story is, there are some new story and character additions from him and writer Tony Kushner that add interesting new perspectives within the story.
Although she played Anita in the 1961 adaptation, who is now played by Ariana DeBose, Rita Morena returns as a new character named Valentina who acts as a mediator for both sides and someone that Tony trusts. Along with Moreno delivering a deeply emotional rendition of “Somewhere,” she adds an older perspective to the cultural clashes and is a strong guiding force for Tony that’s motherly. It’s an addition that would simply seem like just a nod to 1961 film, but Valentina’s presence and Moreno’s performance add another layer to the struggles the Sharks and other Puerto Rican citizens face in not being accepted and gives “Somewhere” a more modern meaning. On the Jets’ side, there’s a new character called Anybodys (Iris Menas), a gender ambiguous character that seeks to join the solely male Jets, that acts as great audience surrogate always on the fringe of the action. It’s another great way to modernize West Side Story by adding in more gender representation and the arc for the character has some touching moments.
As for other performances, West Side Story is filled with an excellent cast of young actors that kill it in both the drama and singing. Zegler is superb in giving Maria’s youthful innocence strength and the emotion she brings to everything after the rumble gut you with her rawness. Her parts in songs like “Tonight” and “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” are easily the strongest parts of the music and her rendition of “I Feel Pretty” genuinely revitalizes a classic. DeBose, in my mind, is the true breakout star of West Side Story with how she emphasizes Anita’s determination and eventual heartbreak so well that you feel your heart ache with hers, and she leads an energetic and soon to be iconic version of “America.” Both Faist and Alvarez are also excellent in their respective roles as they lead their sides with a fierce heart that unfortunately leads them to ruin and have you hooked from start to finish. There are times where the distinct accents can come off a little forced, especially Riff’s nasally New York accent, but these performances are really excellent and showcase a great group of up and comers that people should keep their eyes on – especially DeBose and Zegler.
West Side Story shows its ambitions and vision well but does struggle in certain aspects that keep it from being something more. Although songs like “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “I Feel Pretty” are great, they don’t really add much to the plot or cultural themes in a strong way and honestly, just add to the film’s tortuous runtime that really drags. Also, for all the additions and alterations made, there could’ve been something added to the ending just to make its depictions of cultural struggle and the crushing blows of the gangs feuding a little more impactful. The film just kind of ends suddenly and it leaves you feeling a little empty. Some kind of connection to the present or an epilogue could’ve tied things together better and just given West Side Story a big final blow that sticks with you rather than an underwhelming “one to one” moment with the stage play.
Spielberg turns what could’ve been a standard adaptation of a classic into a visually ambitious, heartfelt homage to the timelessness of its story and captures your heart with its performances, music, and relevant tragedy. West Side Story is easily one of the strongest efforts from Spielberg in years and showcases a new class of talent that put a fresh coat of paint on an iconic love story.