West Side Story [2021] movie review

Respectfully adapted and lushly scored, dreamily romantic and heartbreakingly moving, the new movie adaptation of evergreen classic West Side Story gleams with the splendour of mega-budget movie magic that is deployed with the utmost of respect for the immaculate source material.

Did we need a new movie adaptation of West Side Story? Not really.

Are we glad to have this soaring cinematic achievement? With the quality of the result, it is basically impossible to say no.

Esteemed film director Steven Spielberg tries his hand at a movie musical, simply because he can, and the result is a screen adaptation for the ages, imaginatively and yet faithfully adapted with an eye on both the 1957 stage musical and the multi-Academy Award winning 1961 movie.

If the lean economy of Arthur Laurents’ stage book is lost in Tony Kushner’s generously expanded screenplay, the gain in added depth and additional attachment to characters seems well worthwhile. Kushner has enriched the characters and story from within, seemingly adding nothing at all and yet actually adding all manner of myriad minutiae and devilish details.

Setting the action in a dangerously decaying Upper West Side, Spielberg ignites a ticking time bomb with the demolition of densely populated tenements yielding to the shiny new Lincoln Center.

Those who have listened to the glorious soundtrack recording of the new West Side Story will be aware the that the sumptuous music of Leonard Bernstein and the pithy lyrics of recently departed master Stephen Sondheim have been retained and preserved with apposite reverence. 

Spielberg gives the songs room to breathe, completely eschewing the rock video clip vibe of many a modern movie musical. If Justin Peck contributes choreography that is somewhat less all-consuming than that of Jerome Robbins, the adjustment can be accepted as a nod to modern tolerance of dance on screen. Most impressively, the dance is immaculately filmed, with an abundance of full body shots and long sweeping takes. 

Moving “Gee, Officer Krupke” to an earlier position (effectively placing it in act one), Spielberg and Kushner have the second half of the story hurtle tightly from “The Rumble” to the chilling “Finale” with barely space for breath. 

For the first time ever, Tony is part of “Cool,” to thrilling effect. “One Hand, One Heart” has a gorgeous setting in an uptown chapel. “America” is the jewel in the crown of the new film, ever building in intensity as it spills joyously out onto the streets of late-1950s New York.

Rachel Zegler stands out as dear Maria, looking every bit the doe-eyed innocent teen and singing with requisite, if not operatic, sweetness. Ansel Elgort errs slightly on the side of stiffness yet breathes believable life into Tony, the role now somewhat deepened with a backstory of recent incarceration for violence. Together, the pair delivers a swoon-worthy romance building to a deeply moving finale. 

Ariana DeBose is reliably thrilling as firebrand Anita. David Alvarez makes for a suitably steamy an compellingly commanding Bernardo. Even with negligible backstory, Mike Faist adds layers of tension to resolute Jets leader, Riff. 

The beating heart of the new movie, Rita Moreno brings gentle dignity to Valentina, widow of Doc (of Doc’s Drugstore). Softly crooning “Somewhere,” with no dream ballet in sight, Moreno carries the hopes and dreams of us all.

West Side Story plays in previews 17-19 December 2021 in cinemas Australia. West Side Story opens in wide release in cinemas in Australia on 26 December 2021.

Photos: Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox

5 replies »

  1. Thanks for this review Simon. You’ve changed my position from “not wanting to” to “going”.
    Hope all is well with you and Hamilton; have a Joyful Family Christmas.

  2. Thank you for the 2021 West Side Story film review Simon and best wishes for 2022.
    I’m on the same page as you on all counts.
    It’s best to view it as a stand alone interpretation however, relying more on its dramatic content than the musical components.
    I feel Spielberg has created a good narrative but not necessarily an effective screen musical.
    I didn’t come away remembering the dance in particular and this is a show that revolutionised dance in musicals.
    It’s very difficult to match the creative impact of the ’61 movie’s Dance at the Gym, the Jets Song dance and the One Hand One Heart’s stage origins. The latter’s reinterpretation in the chapel seemed lacking in imagination.
    Help me out please ….in the lead up to the end of production wasn’t I Feel Pretty deleted for pc reasons and didn’t Spielberg say he wanted a 2 hour movie ?

    • Hi Edward, thank you for these comments. Wishing you a theatre-filled 2022 (with nothing but safe conditions).

      So glad to hear that you have seen and admired the new West Side Story movie. Your comment has reminded me that I really should see it again while it is in cinemas.

      You are right about the dilution of the dancing. The Somewhere dream ballet was another item missing that could have been a chance for Justin Peck to put his own stamp on the choreography.

      In regard to I Feel Pretty, you may be mixing up reports of the recent Broadway revival, directed by Ivo Van Hove. Without an interval, this version was shorter and did not include “I Feel Pretty.” I have to say that it does not bother me that I did not get to see this version.

      The top dance pick of the year ahead must surely be An American in Paris. Hope you have the chance to see this one. I look forward to comparing notes.

  3. Yes you are correct re the shorter, sans I Feel Pretty stage version….thank you.
    Now you have me thinking how a Somewhere ballet could have been integrated into the 2021 movie ?
    I have seen the upcoming American in Paris in a very brief cinema outing for the stage version.
    It’s a stunner and so looking forward to seeing it live.
    I wonder if the 2021 WSS film version will affect future stage versions in editing, tone, emphasis and especially costuming ?

    • Good point about future stage versions of West Side Story.
      One aspect that non-professional / school productions will be keener than ever to replicate will be the inclusion of the Shark boys in “America.” This has now happened in both movie versions, to terrific effect. The performance rights to the stage version specifically point out that this is not permitted!
      My prediction is that the majority of stage productions will maintain the original classic book, running order, settings, singers etc. but you are right that tone and costumes may provide inspiration for the stage. Time will tell!

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