Writers: Tony Kushner(screenplay by), Arthur Laurents (based on the stage play, book by)
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andrés Rivera, Rita Moreno
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Imagine you watch a really great comedy special. It’s a comedian you love and there’s a joke in it that is so good, you can’t stop laughing about it.
So the next day, you’re talking to a friend who hasn’t seen the special. And you want to tell your friend the joke that made you laugh hysterically.
You do your best to capture the comedian’s material. You inevitably end up leaving a few lines out and maybe even embellish parts to add your own flair to the bit.
When you hit the punchline, your friend laughs. Because it’s a good joke. And it feels good to get that response.
But it’s not really your laugh, is it? Because it’s not really your joke. It’s your best attempt to recreate something someone else masterfully crafted.
Which brings me to Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story …
It’s an enjoyable movie. But most of my enjoyment of the film comes from a love of the source material. West Story Story is a musical filled with iconic music written by two of the greats: Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It’s a modern reimagining of William Shakespeare’s timeless drama Romeo and Juliet. It’s a lavish, crowd pleasing musical.
I played Big Deal in my high school’s production of West Side Story. I love the original 1961 film. I know all of the songs and was singing along with them in my head as I watched this film. I had a great time strolling down Memory Lane as I watched this version.
It was a wonderful experience, but I couldn’t shake the question: Did Spielberg actually make a good movie or did he simply recreate something others had already masterfully crafted?
There are some notable improvements to the 1961 film. Perhaps the biggest is that this film has a Latinx actor playing Maria (Rachel Zegler) instead of the 1962 film’s controversial decision to cast white actor Natalie Wood as the Puerto Rican protagonist. This film also has larger and more varied sets, so you see more of the contested New York neighborhood that is so central to the story. The scope of the film is truly impressive and I particularly loved the abandoned warehouse setting for the film’s epic brawl between the Jets and the Sharks.
However, those improvements feel negated by other choices that Spielberg makes that are distracting. Most notably, Spielberg seems to be competing with J.J. Abrams to see who can put the most lens flares into a major motion picture. When Tony (Ansel Elgort) first meets Maria, both actors’ faces are completely obscured by a flurry of lens flares. I could have forgiven it as an artistic choice to create a surreal dream atmosphere for that particular scene, but it’s an aesthetic that continues to pop up in other random scenes throughout.
In general, I wasn’t a fan of the way Spielberg shot this film. Many of the choices he made in his framing and editing during the dance numbers detracted from the great choreography and vocal work being done by his performers. Weird edits, Dutch angles and unflattering low angle shots all took away from my enjoyment of the big musical numbers. (“Gee, Officer Krupke,” in particular, suffered from distracting stylistic choices.)
Sometimes Spielberg’s choices work, though. His best number is “America,” which gives Ariana DeBose a chance to shine as Anita (a role Rita Morena won an Academy Award for in the original film). DeBose is a standout performer in the film and in this — her flashiest number — she is sublime. Her dancing and singing, which evolves into a giant, well-choreographed block party, is a joy to behold. (Speaking of Rita Morena, she plays Tony’s boss Valentina in the film and gets to sing “Somewhere,” which is delightful.)
The ensemble cast is excellent overall. Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler are the standouts, I also quite enjoyed Mike Faist as Riff, David Alvarez as Bernardo and Iris Means as Anybodys.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is an enjoyable film, particularly for anyone who has never seen the 1961 version. But it still feels more like someone’s best impression of a classic film than a work of art that succeeds on its own merit.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.