Review of 'West Side Story'

west_side_story_spielberg.jpg “West Side Story” is famous director Steven Spielberg's first foray into musicals, doing an incredible job at bringing this classic 1957 musical featuring music by Leonard Bernstein.

It is 1957 New York and a whole section of housing is being demolished for redevelopment. Amongst this we are introduced to two gangs: The Jets, featuring disenchanted white youth, and The Sharks, a group of young Puerto Ricans trying to make a life for themselves in the new world. Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jet, has just been released from jail having badly beaten up a boy while Maria (Rachel Zegler) is a young Puerto Rican trying to figure out her place in the world. At a dance arranged at the local school Tony and Maria immediately fall in love but they are interrupted by tense feelings between the Jets and Sharks who agree to a rumble the next day. As their love blossoms, Maria pleads with Tony to stop the fight but he ends up killing the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez). Then, things go badly.

I am a huge fan of the original 1961 film (which was based on the 1957 stage musical) so was keen to see how Steven Spielberg would do updating it for the 21st century. I can say he did a very good job with quite a different feeling film. Throughout “West Side Story” there is an overwhelming feeling of foreboding with the dark climax coming much earlier and the ever increasing sense of dread building and building until the ultimately tragic end.

The choreography and music is simply stunning, though perhaps not as polished as in the original film, here it is grittier and much more street-savvy as the numbers literally use the streets themselves as a stage to a much larger degree than in 1961. The sound itself is kept clean and unfiltered allowing you to literally hear the swooshing of the dresses and the scuffling of the feet of the performers which really adds to the sense of place. The singing is wonderful and clean with the original music largely untouched though their order is slightly adjusted. There are some seriously talented people in this film but they are largely unknowns (as of time of writing).

As you might expect with Spielberg, great care is taken with the details of the sets and the city, making them utterly believable. They are shown off gloriously with some tremendous cinematography including some amazing overhead shots, again, trademark Spielberg. This is a director who really wants to get everything exactly right and it shows. I do have to say the film did feel like it dragged on a little too much with the pace dramatically slowing in the middle and never really picking up the tempo after.

Generally, an interesting and accomplished first musical from Spielberg with justice done to the magnificent source material.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2022-01-02

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Studio: 20th Century Studios

Year: 2021

Length: 156 minutes

Genre: Musical

Other reviewed films by Steven Spielberg: