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‘West Side Story’ review: Healthy balance leads to glorious experience

Can Steven Spielberg’s own spin on the stage musical be as successful as the 1961 original?

What makes Steven Spielberg arguably the most celebrated director working today is his openness to try many different genres. Many can view him as having a split personality, whether it is the serious dramatic Oscar contender or the king of popcorn cinema. And yet, despite his decades-long filmography, Spielberg has never directed a musical, though the closest would be the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. For his musical debut, Spielberg has decided to put his own spin on the well-loved stage musical, which was turned into an all-time great cinematic musical in 1961. 

Taking inspiration from Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is set in the mid-1950s in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City, then a multiracial, blue-collar neighborhood. Exploring the rivalry between the white-based Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds – the conflict becomes greater when Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang’s leader, Riff (Mike Faist), falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks. 

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Spielberg is no stranger to remakes, but the prospect of remaking West Side Story seems blasphemous, considering that the 1961 original had influenced many things, even the songs are memorable to the point of parody. Spielberg never feels like he’s above the musical genre, let alone reinventing it as he embraces the classical nature of the original, from the insane dance choreography to the late Stephen Sondheim’s catchy lyrics.  

As cinematic as the original was, there was an element of staginess, in terms of the performing of the actors taking place in an almost empty vastness of New York, which you can certainly point to the stage musical’s co-creator/choreographer Jerome Robbins co-directed alongside Robert Wise. The notable difference that Spielberg brings is the busyness of the city and how the characters interact with it through the almost-acrobatic dancing. The definite highlights would be “America” and to a lesser extent, “The Dance of at the Gym”, both of which show precision and aggression that is exciting to watch. 

Given the story originates from the aforementioned Shakespeare narrative, everybody ought to know the broad strokes of both the romance and conflict will pan out, but as is usually the case with most musicals, trying to cram a number of songs in two and a half hours can be long-winded. It is a good thing that the entire cast is an absolute joy and appropriately played, considering the dodgy casting of Puerto Ricans in the original, such as Natalie Wood as Maria. As enjoyably bombastic as the supporting players are, the central chemistry between Ansel Elgort’s Tony and Rachel Zegler’s Maria is so incredibly heartwarming that you know it’s going to hurt when the tragedy ensues. 

No doubt there are people who will question why remake West Side Story, considering that the source material gave way to a stereotypical view of Puerto Ricans and its culture. However, as much as West Side Story is an extension of the all-time American narrative that is the immigrant story, it feels relevant now in its exploration of racism, of which Tony Kushner’s script puts more emphasis on the hatred between the two ethnicities. Despite the upbeat nature, there is also a darkness here as well and Spielberg finds a healthy balance to make his West Side Story a glorious experience. 

west side story
‘West Side Story’ review: Healthy balance leads to glorious experience
West Side Story
Classical in its approach to the musical genre whilst manages to be relevant through its subject matter, Spielberg's West Side Story is a heartwarming and tragic experience that is both theatrical and cinematic.
Reader Rating0 Votes
A likeable youthful cast that sing and dance to glorious effect.
Spielberg's incredible direction that brings an attention towards 50s New York, which functions as a playground to the theatrics of the story.
Manages to be both light and dark through its central romance and the racial conflict between the two gangs.
Considering the origins of West Side Story, which has been previously adapted, everyone ought to know the mechanics of how this story will pan out...
...despite the film suffers from a curse with most musical films, which is a desire to include many songs, that it can feel long-winded.

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