Time: 156 Minutes
Age Rating: Violence
Ansel Elgort as Tony
Rachel Zegler as Maria
Ariana DeBose as Anita
David Alvarez as Bernardo
Mike Faist as Riff
Rita Moreno as Valentina
Director: Steven Spielberg
Love at first sight strikes when young Tony spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks — two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.
I’m not familiar with West Side Story, the musical. Nor have I watched the 1960s adaptation from director Robert Wise. So I wasn’t exactly interested in the latest West Side Story adaptation. What did have my attention however was that the fact that this most recent adaptation would be directed by Steven Spielberg, in fact it’ll surprisingly be the first musical directed by Spielberg. I’m not sure that I would put Spielberg as one of my favourite directors of all time but there’s not denying how impactful and influential of a director he is. So I was curious to see how it would be. I have to admit, his West Side Story turned out to be a lot better than expected, it was actually amazing.
As someone who wasn’t familiar with the musical beforehand, I quite liked the movie. It was over the top, theatrical and cheesy at times, yet endearing, entertaining and emotional at points. I was quite interested with the story and the characters and how it played out (for the most part), and it helps that in each scene it felt that there was so much care put into it. I almost feel like it’s hard to critique the writing of the film here because it’ll probably be closely based off the source material, yet I’m unfamiliar with said source material so I can’t judge it as an adaptation either. As far as flaws with the writing go, I will say that I wasn’t invested in the love story at the centre with the main two characters (as played by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler). Any story which has two characters instantly fall in love at first sight is immediately going to turn me off (large reason for why I just don’t care for Romeo and Juliet), and I don’t particularly like the way it plays out here either. However, I do feel like this’ll be a problem I’ll have with every variation with the story, and not necessarily an issue with how Spielberg presented it. West Side Story is a very long movie at 2 hours and 40 minutes, and despite that length it had me invested and entertained from beginning to end.
A notable strength of the film was the powerhouse performances from most of the cast. One of the main leads is newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and she’s really good, effectively portraying her character’s innocence and vulnerability, and her singing is particularly great. Other actors like Mike Faist, David Alvarez and Rita Moreno are also fantastic in their parts and sell their characters exceptionally. Even the more background characters make strong impressions in their screentime. The most memorable character and performance for me was Ariana DeBose as Anita, she felt very real and was amazing. There’s just one outlier in the otherwise strong cast in the form of one Ansel Elgort, the other co-lead as Tony. I wouldn’t quite say that he’s terrible, but he’s mostly just passable, and his performance could most charitably be called a charisma vacuum. Compared to all the other characters in the story, Tony is relatively boring, but its really not helped by the fairly bland portrayal here. I wasn’t invested in their romance at all but this really isn’t helped by the scenes between him and Zegler lacking the chemistry and believability needed. In fact, the way that Elgort plays those scenes gives his character a weird and creepy undertone at times that wasn’t intentional. Otherwise, the rest of the cast are fantastic.
Steven Spielberg is a more than accomplished director, and even though most of his recent movies have been just okay to me, his technical work is always strong. However, this genuinely might be one of his best directing works. His direction of West Side Story is constantly fluent and fluid, and there’s a lot of energy throughout. The sweeping cinematography and camerawork from Janusz Kamiski is just perfect. From beginning to end, every shot is composed perfectly and so much thought was clearly put into every frame, from the lighting to the colour. The song and dance sequences are fantastic; the dance scenes are next level with outstanding choreography, and the scenes with singing are beautiful to watch too even if some are more memorable than others. Other details like the costume designs are strong too. However, I think it’s the production designs and environments that really sell the setting of the film, everything from the barriers, ladders, stairs, flags and destroyed building really works in making it all feel believable.
West Side Story is a vibrant, entertaining and excellently made musical, with greatly directed song and dance sequences, and a mostly fantastic cast of performances. This really is Steven Spielberg’s best film since Munich, and it is possibly among his best movies. I highly recommend checking it out, it’s among the best films of 2021.