West Side Story (2021) Review: Spielberg Satisfaction


Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Storming the end-of-year conversations for best film is Steven Spielberg’s worthy remake of the 1964 classic musical West Side Story. Starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Ziegler as Tony and Maria respectively, it is most certainly one of the best releases of the entire year. Indeed, Spielberg injects such flair into this obtuse rendition of New York City that the 2021 remake could easily fit in with other films from the 60s. It is bright, colorful, but also in its palette retains the drab grays and monotone flavors that ground the narrative in its NYC setting. It is classic filmmaking at its best and is one of the most compelling reasons to return to the theater this holiday (outside of Spider-Man: No Way Home of course). West Side Story is masterfully crafted and commands your attention with some of Spielberg’s best work.



 

Excluding some of its unwarranted controversy, the plot of West Side Story is relatively simple to grasp hold of. It is a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, complete with two warring groups (the Jets and the Sharks). Tony and Maria’s budding romance comes at odds with the simmering conflict between the Jets and the Sharks, eventually launching into a fully fledged conflict in the film’s awestruck climax. Much of West Side Story’s believability rests on the romance between Elgort’s Tony and Ziegler’s Maria, especially since it is the catalyst for the life-changing ramifications of the conclusion. Fortunately, Elgort and Ziegler mostly succeed in this regard. Where they occasionally stumble is portraying their romance-which spans only a few days-as something that is worth even life and limb. Otherwise though, both deliver superb performances, capturing the longing glances and adorable moments that should accompany a Shakespearean relationship like this.

 
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At its core, West Side Story is a romance, but it is also bundled with several entertaining subplots that deal with the Jets and Sharks. For instance, Tony’s desperation to leave the gang that once sent him to prison for a year is countered by Riff’s (Mike Faist) earnest desire to see his friend return to the character he once was.

These subplots eventually simmer to some of the best moments and musical set pieces of the entire film, with the highlight easily being “America”: a fascinating dialogue on the pros and cons of American assimilation for a Puerto Rican. For his first musical, Spielberg masterfully stages each set piece, settling comfortably into a brash, flashy, yet graceful style. It loses much of the idealism of previous incarnations of this narrative in favor of a richer, noisier experience. It all helps to immerse the audience in this faithfully realized New York City.

 

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

West Side Story is not the most fun film to watch, soured by an emotional and bittersweet ending, but it is easily one of the most finely crafted. Spielberg has smashed a home run here, and it will likely compete for the Best Picture honor at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dune, West Side Story is a worthy choice to screen at a theater with the best sound system and biggest screen. It demands the group experience, not unlike the very best of Broadway productions. See it today. Or see it tomorrow. Or see it this weekend. Make sure you do not miss out on Spielberg’s fantastic first foray into the world of musicals.