MOVIE REVIEW: West Side Story

Review by: Aditya Thiyag

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rating: 3.5/5

Steven Speilberg’s 2021 adaptation of the similarly named 1957 stage musical is a slow paced visual spectacle with grand musical numbers and expert cinematography that is bogged down by frustrating writing of both the characters and the plot.

The movie opens with a swooping long take over a desaturated look into New York’s Upper West Side. The streets are caked in filth yet there’s a life present in the world due the two gangs vying for control over this territory, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the (American) Jets. Polish Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński shoots this opening scene, as well as of the rest of the major musical numbers, in a way that makes the viewer feel like less of an active participant in the scene but rather a spectator similar to an audience member in a stage play. His familiarity with Speilberg’s work is apparent in how well the shots complement the characters moving within them.

Choreographer Justin Peck and composer David Newman, as well as the rest of the cast, do justice to the iconic soundtrack written by late legends Stephen Sondeheim and Leonard Bernstein. The vocal performances are strong all throughout, but my personal favorite number is “Gee, Officer Krupke” – a comedic yet insightful look into what the Jets value and why they came together set inside a police station that highlights the subtlety of the original script. The centerpiece of the film is a school dance within a gym. Combining the aforementioned cinematography and skillful dance choreography with vibrant, contrasting colors, Speilberg expertly directs a 6 minute tour de force that will hopefully become synonymous with this remake.

The largest issue present within the film manifests itself within the screenplay and story. The former feels needlessly derivative of the real life Puerto Rican struggle that the film based its story off of, with the dialogue so on the nose that it had my eyes rolling plenty of times. It often felt like the screenplay attempted to shove messages of racial tensions at the cost of the overall cohesiveness of the film. The updated struggles of the Anybodys character through casting of transgender Ezra Menas modernizes the script a little and is a welcome addition, but the broadstroke story remains unchanged and is thus a little underwhelming.

The performances here aren’t anything to write home about either. Ansel Elgort is the least charismatic lead in this film, dragging down a fairly well written character within Tony. However, the intimate character moments, especially any scene between David Alvarez’s Bernardo and Rachel Zegler’s Maria, are masterfully shot and evoke emotion from characters that are somewhat underwritten.

West Side Story is a long, arduous effort that attempts to weave in the perspectives of tens of characters to tell a story about the struggles of living in an impoverished 1950’s New York but ultimately falls flat. Nonetheless, the inventive camerawork and stage direction rivals any live musical and makes Speilberg’s 2021 adventure an enjoyable watch.