West Side Story (2021)

“I’m scared of myself, Riff. What I done to that kid. What I almost done.”

It’s confirmed, whatever Steven Spielberg touches it will turn to gold. That much is true with the director’s legendary career as a filmmaker – spanning decades and genres brilliantly. How many films has Spielberg directed that are now considered classics of film and should be seen by all? Too many to count honestly though has not batting 1.000, he’s damn near close to perfection. West Side Story only adds to his winning streak of near perfect films. And no matter what genre of film is your favorite, Spielberg has attacked that genre head on and has come out on top. No other director has had this type of success (excluding Ready Player One, that film isn’t as good as the book).

2021 has been the year of the musical’s resurgence – I’ve said it before in past reviews and I’ll keep saying it. From In the Heights to Tick, Tick… Boom! Most of the adaptations have captured the spirit of the stage version perfectly – all except Dear Evan Hanson have stuck the landing (still wondering why and how that went so wrong). 

I never saw the original 1961 film, or the stage play of West Side Story so viewing this piece of art with fresh eyes I was still able to see its brilliance and relevance immediately. Regardless, I’ve been familiar with some of the concepts in the show, but the meat and potatoes of the story is brand new to me and now I can’t picture anyone but Spielberg taking a crack at an adaptation. The story follows two rival gangs The Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist) and The Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) as they battle back and forth over turf that is scheduled to be demolished to make way for the Lincoln Center being built in Manhattan. The feud is fueled even further when Tony (Ansel Elgort), fresh out of a 1-year prison sentence meets and falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a high school dance. 

From top to bottom West Side Story masterpiece by a director who shows no signs of slowing down. Besides a stiff, almost lifeless performance by Elgort in the leading role, everyone in the supporting ensemble acts their hearts out including Rachel Zegler who is a undeniably a star. She radiates confidence, charisma, and beauty whenever she’s on screen – balancing out her co-lead. 

With Oscar season right around the corner West Side Story has the ability to match its predecessor’s nomination total of 11 nominations with 10 wins including best picture. Spielberg’s direction paired with Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography made that a possibility. For a director who’s never tackled a musical before, Spielberg keeps the intimacy of a stage play throughout cutting out all outside distraction a setting like Manhattan can bring. Its Tony and Maria’s story – tragic in nature but still hopeful that love prevails despite the bigotry of the feuding gangs. And though Riff swears this isn’t a racial conflict, it is. 

Just as relevant in that period as it is today, the overall conflict between the gang’s parallels society today. Holding all this conflict together by the skin of their teeth is officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll). They argue that the conflict between the two is redundant because of the construction but bad blood and love prevail. 

 Thematically, Love proves that it can break boundaries, it can stop hate and it can do even more damage. Riff loves Tony like a brother, the two started the Jets but once thing we don’t know is who shot first. All the audience is made aware of is the bad blood. Maybe the stage play or the 1961 version dives into the backstory of the turf way but even without it, the film doesn’t skip a beat. That question is miniscule because of the beauty of the songs and choreography. Musically, everyone is near perfect but Zegler, as I mentioned earlier carries this film on her back with an angelic voice that could easily work for the original film. 

Having no prior knowledge of the previous film and stage play doesn’t start you at a disadvantage going into this version. Spielberg makes it easy to get swallowed up in all the drama and conflict within minutes on the Jets introduction. I’m in awe of what this film accomplishes especially with In the Heights, Tick, Tick…Boom! & Encanto all bringing their A-game. It’s difficult to rank the musicals this year because they have all been brilliant in their own way. To be honest, it’s just heartbreaking that these films aren’t landing with general audiences as they have performed poorly at the box office. 

West Side Story is beautifully crafted and told from a director who has never touched a musical before. Rachel Zegler gives an inspiring performance cementing her performance as a best actress contender. Despite Ansel Elgort being toneless and flat with his performance of Tony (he still can out sing anybody) the film is the frontrunner for Best Picture – it deserves that honor. It’s nearly impossible to find anything to criticize about this masterpiece – it’s a timeless classic with as much cultural significance as it is with its astounding themes.

Written By: Tony Kushner

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Music By: Leonard Bernstein

Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler

Release Date: December 10, 2021

Running Time: 2 Hours 36 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%

My Score: 4.5 out of 5

Based On: West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins & Arthur Laurents

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