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West Side Story – Movie Review

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West Side Story – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy 20th Century Studios

Steven Spielberg has long expressed a desire to direct a movie musical. There have been hints of this in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Hook, so it’s exciting to see him finally bring that dream into fruition. In adapting the classic stage show West Side Story, Spielberg has refreshingly taken an old-school approach with his direction. This feels like watching a well mounted theatrical production, with Spielberg giving us a full view of the dancing and only cutting when necessary. At its core, West Side Story remains a touching love story and watching it through modern eyes, the message continues to be relevant.

While Spielberg uses some of his directorial flourishes, he shows an incredible trust for the material and for the choreographers and actors. Whenever the film launches into a musical number, the energy is absolutely there on the screen and the songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim have not lost their pop. Everyone in the cast shows incredible singing talent as they belt out the tunes, with Rachel Zegler especially impressing with her vocal range. “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” are both lovely songs fit for Zegler, although her stand-out performance might be in “I Feel Pretty.” Meanwhile, “America” serves as the big show-stopper with its lyrics proving just as strong as when Sondheim first wrote them in the ‘50s.

The comic number “Gee, Officer Krupke” is a delight and “Somewhere” becomes a touching solo for Rita Moreno’s store owner Valentina. Justin Peck’s choreography is exceptional, with Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski knowing when to give the proper space between the dancers and the camera. David Newman’s orchestrations for the music are especially important ingredients in giving this adaptation of West Side Story plenty of power. Adapting stage music for the screen is a delicate and underappreciated art. Excellent scoring arrangements like John Williams’s for Fiddler on the Roof and Newman’s for West Side Story can help make the songs even more impactful.

In adapting the stage play, screenwriter Tony Kushner has also fleshed out the characterisations a bit more. The decision to have Moreno play Doc’s widow, herself a Puerto Rican, is a clever one. Maria and Tony have plenty of nice scenes together, although Tony remains the least interesting personality. That’s certainly not Ansel Elgort’s fault, who tries his best to make the most of his character. Anybodys, who was depicted as a tomboy in the stage show, is given a little more depth and has been reimagined as a transgender character. Iris Menas successfully depicts Anybodys’s desperation to become accepted as part of the Jets, with the film not shying away from the attitudes of the time period. Of the entire cast, the stand-out winds up being Mike Faist as Jets leader Riff, bringing the required intensity as the gang conflict heats up.

Steven Spielberg is one of the best storytellers of the past fifty years, with his filmography bringing us one great film after another and encompassing multiple genres. Watching his first musical, it shows his continued willingness to try new things and go to places he hasn’t before. His love for the material is also evident in every frame and one appreciates how much the film leans into the Classic Hollywood filmmaking sensibility. It’s surprising how few filmmakers try to replicate the Technicolor musical style of the Golden Age of Movie Musicals. West Side Story ultimately feels like watching a great classic being staged with one of the world’s best directors commanding the show and a talented cast in front of the camera.

Stefan Ellison