West Side Story (2021)

Spielberg, in his first-ever musical, hits it out of the park with this dynamic and compelling remake of the 1961 original, featuring a revelatory performance by Rachel Zegler.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,336

Dir. Steven Spielberg
2021 | USA | Musical/Drama | 156 mins | 2.39:1 | English & Spanish
PG13 (passed clean) for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno
Plot: In the midst of a tense gang rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, Tony finds himself falling in love with his rival’s sister, Maria. 
Awards: Won 1 Oscar – Best Supporting Actress; Nom. for 6 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Sound
Distributor: Disney

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Identity, Love, Friends and Foes
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: In Theatres (GV Vivo)
Spoilers: No

Some critics have remarked that this is Steven Spielberg’s best movie in years, and it’s quite true.  It’s a tour de force and meant to be seen on the big screen where you can feel the full dynamism of his filmmaking on display. 

A remake of sorts of the 1961 original, West Side Story under Spielberg’s hands is both modern yet retro at the same time—it is a sweeping spectacle, pristinely-made but also very much evocative of the period setting of its narrative. 

To think that this is only the 75-year-old director’s first musical after five decades in film is quite astonishing to believe.  Largely following the narrative beats and structure of the original, Spielberg’s version is blessed with a cast of ethnically-diverse actors. 

The one revelatory performance for me comes from Rachel Zegler in her feature acting debut as Maria, who falls in love with Tony (Ansel Elgort in a less memorable display than his Baby Driver exploits), as rival street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds threaten to tear them apart. 

“Tonight, tonight, the world is full of light.”

Zegler is truly stunning whether in song, dance or drama.  (Her next major role is Snow White in a new live-action version by Disney.) 

This is the second consecutive film without Spielberg’s longstanding composer, John Williams, onboard… well, because in this case there is Leonard Bernstein’s beloved original music to savour again. 

Some of the musical’s most iconic songs, including ‘Somewhere’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘Maria’, are performed with the right amount of gusto and emotion. 

While some might find that the storytelling flaws of the original are also apparent in this version, I didn’t quite feel it.  I was pretty much sold by how compelling the movie was, and despite its length (just twenty minutes shy of three hours), I was thoroughly engaged. 

It’s such a pity that it did abysmally at the U.S. box-office, and I hope this doesn’t spell the end of musicals as we know it.  If anything, they ought to be comfort viewing in these pandemic-ridden times.

Grade: A-




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