West Side Story has long been regarded as one of America’s finest musicals, first thriving on the stage before making its way to the silver screen in its initial 1961 adaptation, telling a tried and tested story of two star-crossed lovers in the growing heat of ethnic and racial tensions in 1950s New York. Steven Spielberg’s 2021 reimagining takes the same premise and makes enough changes to leave a mark of its own, but only if you were already into the story at hand, to begin with. West Side Story (2021) has enough charm and musical energy to form new fans of its own, but I may not be one of them.
I went into the film as blind as possible, having never seen the stage play or the 1961 film adaptation. I’ve only ever seen a few clips from that film, and I knew the story was inspired by Romeo and Juliet. So, how does West Side Story stack up as a stand-alone film for first-time viewers in 2021? Pretty good, if you’re somewhat familiar with it already and are looking forward to a new take on the material. The film looks and sounds amazing, with an excellent and timeless look constructed by Spielberg’s longtime collaborating cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, aided by impeccable production design and costumes.. Scored by Leonard Bernstein with Justin Peck’s choreography, taking cues from the original yet adding modernising it, West Side Story is an artistic and technical marvel without attracting too much attention to itself, subtly increasing the grandeur of its musical set-pieces that should be enjoyed by a packed theatre.
It’s no surprise to see Spielberg being at the top of his game here, bringing out a stellar performance from newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and David Alvarez as Bernardo, who steal each scene they’re in. Ansel Elgort’s Tony is charming all the right ways, although his performance does seem to fall short of the great heights that the story wants it to reach. Spielberg has of course changed a few things from the original play and its adaptations, restructuring it and adding a few new updates to some of its characters, and it all works out for the better. Like the play, the film has two distinct halves, with tensions rising between the Jets and the Sharks in a meaningful manner.
Seeing as the original story is a musical play, Spielberg keeps the camera cuts to a minimum, following our central heroes during the film’s many set pieces, with superb choreography and trademark blocking from the director. It’s also one of the reasons why, to me, the film feels disjointed in its more conventional scenes, which switch gears too fast. There’s a ‘dream-like’ quality to the musical sequences, except the music never reaches its crescendo at its height. The sound design keeps things grounded when they should be flying, which of course is an intentional decision. Comparing this to the last musical I saw, La La Land, which too had its own story to tell about a modern America (although about its entertainment industry), I was never on the same level as the Jets, or the Sharks, or Tony or Maria as I was with Seb and Mia in that film. Purists may jump to my take on the same calling it ‘unfair’, but I am writing about the film I saw without any context, for it shouldn’t need a wider context than what it provides in itself.
West Side Story is very faithful to its source, with almost half of the film being in Spanish without any subtitles. While I know that many will have problems with that, I like it. Despite not understanding the specifics of what is being said in almost any scene involving the Sharks, I understood the core essence. That’s where the actors shine, and the medium of film, being as visual and aural as it is, used in its purest sense. At the same time, it also reminds me why this started as a musical on a stage, and the transition from that to film isn’t always the smoothest.
Featuring an excellent cast with stellar direction, West Side Story may be seen as a fantastic reimagining of a classic story, but only if you’re already interested in what it has to say about America. While the themes of its story are universal, it’s a little hard for me to connect to its characters and the messages they deliver when the filmmaking assumes you’re already familiar with the decisions they make, regardless of whether it makes any conventional sense.