‘West Side Story’ Movie Review: A Breathtaking and Brilliant Reimagining
As a die-hard musical theater fan, I’ve been counting down the days until the release of West Side Story. It’s one of my top 3 favorite Broadway musicals of all time. So, needless to say, pretty high expectations had been in place prior to me seeing it.
How did it hold up? Well, it’s in my top spot for best film of 2021, so that tells you something. Let’s dive into it!
If you’re not familiar with the classic story of West Side Story, the plot is pretty simple. It’s a tale of fierce rivalries and young love (Tony and María) in 1957 New York City. Take a look at the trailer below.
West Side Story Movie Review: What I Did and Didn’t Like
Let me start by saying there’s not anything I didn’t like with this one. I came into this film a harsh critic with high expectations. And for me, this film completely delivered. And after the final scene faded to black, the experience of the last two and half hours stayed with me. Even now, writing this review 5 days after the screening, I’m still completely haunted by the intensity and brilliance of it all.
There are two stand-out stars in this film, Ariana DeBose (Anita) and Rachel Zegler (María). But let’s start with Rachel Zegler.
Zegler is no stranger to the stage, appearing in numerous stage productions. She also has had a pretty substantial presence on YouTube since 2015. But it was in January 2018, when director Steven Spielberg posted an open casting call on Twitter that, then 16-year-old, Zegler responded with tweets of herself singing “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty.” The rest became history as she beat out 30,000 other young females for the role of María.
Zegler is brilliant as María. You’re able to completely lose yourself in her performance and be mesmerized by the innocence she brings to the character. I would love to see more undiscovered talents like this in big productions. For me, it’s not only refreshing – but helps the viewer truly escape into the story.
Next, there is Ariana DeBose as Anita. She first made her Hollywood debut in So You Think You Can Dance before going on to make her Broadway debut in 2011’s Bring It On: The Musical. From there, she appeared in numerous Broadway roles, including Hamilton with the original cast, where she played the Bullet.
DeBose is a freaking powerhouse in this role. She couldn’t have been more perfectly cast. Her incredible dancing, her beautiful voice, and all the mannerisms and nuances she brings to the role create an indomitable character that’s inspiring to watch.
Anita from the 1961 version of West Side Story (the original film), Rita Moreno, also appears in this film as Valentina, the owner of the corner store where Tony works. She delivers a captivating performance that effortlessly brings with it the charm of the 1961 film.
It’s also worth noting that Moreno is one of only three artists to be honored with Academy®, Emmy®, GRAMMY®, Tony® and Peabody Awards. And for this film, she also serves as one of the film’s executive producers.
Ansel Elgort also does a fabulous job in the role of Tony and reveals an impressive range of vocals. Being familiar with his work as a DJ and also knowing that he studied ballet from ages 9 to 14, I wasn’t surprised at all to see him cast as Tony. However, here, hearing him sing these songs – I had no idea what a triple threat Elgort really was.
Not to mention the palpable chemistry between Elgort and Zegler as Tony and María. Their work in these roles is undeniably award-worthy.
The entire ensemble cast is worthy of praise here. They attack the choreography with ease and vocals that honor the original music yet bring something new to the iconic songs.
Steven Spielberg’s choice to pick cast members with stage experience versus a cast of well-known movie actors/actresses brings a level of authenticity to the film that creates a beautiful blend of cinema and Broadway. And on that note, let’s talk about that blend between worlds.
Technical Aspects & Direction
It’s no secret that I’m a massive Steven Spielberg fan. Most movie geeks are. However, Spielberg brings something totally new to the big screen with this reimagining of West Side Story. It’s hands down the most beautiful thing he’s ever created. But he doesn’t get all the credit for that. He’s also got an incredible creative team at his side.
That creative team includes:
- Tony Kushner (who wrote the screenplay based on the original 1957 Broadway show)
- Tony Award® winner Justin Peck, who choreographed the musical numbers in the film
- Renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and GRAMMY® winner Gustavo Dudamel, who helmed the recording of the iconic score
- Academy Award®-nominated composer and conductor David Newman (“Anastasia”), who arranged the score
- Tony Award®-winning composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), who supervised the cast on vocals
- And GRAMMY®-nominated music supervisor Matt Sullivan (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Chicago”), who serves as executive music producer for the film.
Polish cinematographer and film director Janusz Kaminski is responsible for the cinematography here. He’s no stranger to working with Spielberg, as the two frequently pair up. Kaminski won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). And I think he’s got a strong chance of winning the coveted award yet again for his work on this project.
The use of light in this movie does a fantastic job blending the worlds of film and stage. I’ve not seen anything like it before. For some, you may think you’re watching a J.J. Abrams production with the number of lens flares. But for me, I absolutely loved it – because it felt like stage lighting in every single scene.
This reimagining of West Side Story is a breathtaking work of art. If you’re not a fan of musicals, this movie won’t change that. But if you are, be prepared to fall completely in love.
And while it’s a close race for my top film of the year pick (between this one and Licorice Pizza), this one wins out. I haven’t seen a movie that was so masterfully executed on all fronts in quite a long time. From performances to music to the direction and everything in between – West Side Story represents the best of the best that 2021 has to offer on the big screen.
West Side Story Movie Review:
Ok, I love musicals and I love Spielberg. When I first read that he was remaking this I thought, one, why mess with a classic?, and two, Steven Spielberg? Well for you to say, “ It’s hands down the most beautiful thing he’s ever created”, I am absolutely intrigued now and cannot wait to see it. Great review that makes me want to get to the theater in a hurry!