Movie Review: West Side Story

The new West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a remake of the 1961 classic film.
West Side Story is a version of Romeo and Juliet set in New York in 1957.

Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, it’s the Sharks and the Jets, two rival gangs fighting for their
territory. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, it is Tony and María, a star crossed couple from rival gangs.

The older version is one of my favorite movies and I was really interested to see what Spielberg would bring to the project to bring it into a 2021 lens. Delayed by a year due to the pandemic, the film is well worth the wait, with beautiful cinematography and powerful performances making its two and a half hour runtime feel captivating and fast paced.

Although the original film is a classic, it is not without its problems. All but one of the Puerto Rican Shark gang members were played by white actors in brown face. When setting out to make this new version, Spielberg vowed to make sure that every Puerto Rican character would be played by a Latinx person. His showcasing of Latinx stories is a beautiful addition to the film and even further brings out the racial undertones in the story that were always there. The tensions between the Sharks and the Jets, who are white, not only stem from territory disputes,
but the xenophobic attitudes of the Jets.

Another excellent addition to the film comes from its setting. During New York City in 1957, construction of the Lincoln Center was underway, causing tenements to be torn down and many of the poorest citizens of New York to be evicted to make way for an arts center they would not ever be able to enjoy. While the original movie does not really mention this, Spielberg’s version does not shy away from it, with images of the destruction and wrecking balls a constant background. This addition also serves to give the Jets more of a motivation than in the original movie. Their anger does not just come from nowhere, it is stemming from the loss of their homes
and neighborhood.

A large part of the success of this movie comes down to the individual performances. In her film debut, Rachel Zegler is captivating as María. Her gorgeous voice and joy shines through in every scene she’s in and I was left wanting to see even more of her.

Another standout performance is Ariana Debose as Anita, María’s brother’s girlfriend. Every time she is on screen your eyes go directly to her. Her dancing is incredible and the emotional journey she goes on in the film is
incredibly well executed.

Mike Faist as Tony’s best friend Riff also delivers an impressive performance. His character is probably the biggest departure from the original film, as his Riff is much angrier and rougher than the wisecracking, acrobatic Riff from the original movie.

The performance that I was not expecting was Rita Moreno as Valentina. Moreno as Anita in the. original movie and she returned to play Valentina, a part written just for this film. Her presence gives the latter half of the movie true emotional gravitas.

I would say that the only performance. that did not really stick out to me was Ansel Elgort’s Tony. His performance seemed to be slightly out of place and a bit too restrained for the passion that Tony needs to have. I also found the chemistry between Zegler and Elgort to be lacking.

Overall, Spielberg’s interpretation of this classic is well worth the watch. His beautiful cinematography and updated story elements give relevance to the film.

I give this film 4.5 stars out of 5

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