REVIEW: ‘West Side Story’ movie remake from Steven Spielberg is a visual and emotional treat
Dec 8, 2021, 3:01 PM | Updated: Dec 10, 2021, 12:49 pm
SALT LAKE CITY — Of all the movie musicals ever made, there are few more beloved than 1961’s “West Side Story,” starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno. It won 10 of the 11 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, director, and best-supporting actress (Moreno.)
But now, 60 years later, legendary director Steven Spielberg has taken on the challenge of remaking it. Spielberg has said in interviews that when he saw the original as a child he knew he wanted to make it someday. He also thinks West Side Story is a tale that should be told every 20-30 years and hopes someone else will do it again in the future.
But if you’re worried he just remade the 1961 film with similar shots and maybe some updated costumes or special effects, that is definitely not the case.
West Side Story, if perhaps you’re unfamiliar, is based on William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” telling a somewhat contemporary version of the story of two ill-fated youngsters from different backgrounds who fall in love.
The movie is set in late-1950s New York City and tells the tale of two rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks, who are battling each other for turf on Manhattan’s upper west side. The Sharks gang is made up mostly of first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants while the Jets are poor white kids, all of them in their late teens and early 1920s. The two sides generally fight every time they see each other, much to the chagrin of the local police trying to put a stop to it.
The Jets, led by Riff, decide to challenge the Sharks to one final battle for all the turf… but they don’t want to do it without their former leader Tony, who’s trying to live the straight life after a short stint in prison.
Riff talks Tony into going to a community dance where the Jets plan to drop the challenge and set up the brawl, but while there, Tony spies a beautiful girl named Maria, and the two fall for each other immediately. Problem is, Maria is the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo, and needless to say, the idea of her being with a Jet does NOT go over well with big brother.
So Tony and Maria try and navigate having a relationship in secret while all of their closest friends and relatives prepare for a violent battle that the two of them hope to find a way to prevent. And that ALWAYS ends well, right?
THINGS I LIKED
First and foremost is the music! Unlike the original movie, which used different voices than the actors for the singing, this time the entire cast performed all their own songs — and there didn’t seem to be any weak links that I noticed. All the classic numbers are there, “The Jet Song,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” the colorful and exuberant “America” and the iconic “Somewhere”.
The cinematography in WEST SIDE STORY is gorgeous, with vivid colors and creative use of lighting and camera angles. There are definitely artistic flourishes throughout. I don’t know and I couldn’t tell how often green screen was used for backgrounds, but whatever they did, it had the look and feel of mid-20th century New York, straight down to things like era-specific clothing and transportation, old comic books and advertisements in shops, and wooden crates everywhere. It was very immersive and impressive.
They nailed the casting as well, especially Ariana Debose (from Schmigadoon) who absolutely shined in the important role of Anita, Maria’s roommate and Bernardo’s girlfriend. She brought a fiery and passionate energy to her character in both her acting and her singing and dancing that was near-mesmerizing.
David Alvarez plays Bernardo, a boxer in this version, who is protective of his younger sister and frustrated by the lack of respect, and sometimes even basic human decency shown to him and his fellow countrymen here in America.
Ansel Elgort (from Baby Driver) is Tony and after I got over how tall he seemed compared to everyone else around him—something they even joke about in the film—then it was easier for me to see him in the role, someone torn between loyalty to his friends and his feelings for his new love.
Finally, newcomer Rachel Zegler is Maria, an enthusiastic 18-year-old who longs for more than just to clean department stores, and is frustrated by her brother’s overprotectiveness. Zegler balanced innocence with determination, and joyful hope with devastating sadness.
But perhaps the best casting in this movie was how they brought back Rita Moreno in a key role. She played Anita in the original movie, but in Tony Kershner’s script she plays a new character named Valentina, the owner of the shop where Tony works. Of course, it’s a little bit meta since everyone who loves the original WEST SIDE STORY knows exactly who she was in that movie, but at the same time it also adds weight and emotional power to certain scenes and songs of which she is an integral part. I LOVED how Spielberg used her in this version!
And honestly, I liked that the story is still relevant and resonant after all these years. West Side Story I think is an excellent example of the power of cinema and its unique ability to tell a story that can mean multiple things to multiple people, based on each viewer’s experiences.
I even got a bit emotional in several parts, even knowing what was coming, but I liked that.
West Side Story is rated PG-13 and includes violence, a bit of blood, language, content—including a whole group attempting to sexually assault a woman. There’s also some suggestive material and characters smoking.
The run time is over 2 and a half hours, at 2:36. For me, the first half of the movie seemed to drag a little, but the last hour just flew by.
Those who know the original 1961 movie by heart will undoubtedly notice several differences in this version, from some tweaks to the lyrics of a few songs, to where some songs take place in the story, to who even sings some of the songs. As I don’t have a particularly strong connection to the original, none of that bothered me.
If it matters to you, however, perhaps it will help to know that Spielberg himself has said it was a deliberate decision that all choices he made for his movie were based on the “West Side Story” Broadway musical, and not how it was done in the original movie.
And, yes, it is indeed a musical. And this one is really a musical—complete with dance fights and showstopping song-and-dance numbers in the streets. I bring this up only because I have good friends who maybe don’t mind characters singing and dancing in an animated movie, but they really struggle when it’s live-action people suddenly breaking into song and dance.
This last warning may seem a little strange to include, but it definitely crossed my mind while I was watching the movie: For those who maybe aren’t familiar with West Side Story already, I mentioned earlier that WEST SIDE STORY is based on “Romeo and Juliet.” But I think sometimes people forget that the actual title of Shakespeare’s play is THE TRAGEDY of Romeo and Juliet. For a generation that likes the happy Hollywood endings to love stories, just remember that it’s a tragedy for a reason!
But wow, what a job Steven Spielberg has done here. I really liked this movie, and the more I thought about it afterward, the more I liked it.
West Side Story is an emotional and beautiful remake of a classic film. From the look to the music, to the feelings that it brings out, it’s so worth going to experience this. I highly recommend it to anyone. I believe those who are already fans of the musical will be happy, and it could possibly make an entire generation of new fans, as well.
West Side Story is playing only in theaters as this is not available on any streaming service. But it is definitely worth seeing on the big screen.
Interested in this movie? Watch the video at the top of the page for my full, in-depth review & final rating.
Hopefully you & your family found this review helpful! Andy Farnsworth does a weekly “What To Watch” segment for the KSL 5 Today morning news show and also hosts the Fan Effect podcast for KSL NewsRadio. Check out his other in-depth reviews of movies and streaming TV series on KSLTV.com.