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Review: ‘West Side Story’ is a Spectacular New Vision of a Movie Musical Classic

December 9, 2021Ben MK

With such movies as Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park to his name, there's no denying that Steven Spielberg knows how to make a blockbuster. After all, it was his 1975 hit, Jaws, that first gave rise to the term, and in the nearly five decades since, Spielberg's films have grossed over $10 billion at the worldwide box office. Now, with West Side Story, the iconic director is setting his sights on a genre he's never attempted before — the movie musical. But does this remake hit the same heights as its 60-year-old cinematic predecessor or the Tony-winning Broadway production?

Set in 1957 New York City, the film follows star-crossed lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), two teenagers from opposite sides of the tracks who each have a stake in the Manhattan neighborhood that is the Upper West Side. For Tony, it's where he and his fellow Irish Catholic friends like Riff (Mike Faist) grew up, and it's territory that they still fiercely defend as the Jets, a rough and tumble street gang with a penchant for wearing leather jackets and lurking around construction sites. However, for Maria, whose family moved to America from Colombia in search of a better life, the Upper West Side represents more than just nostalgia for the long-lost past. For her, her boxer brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose), it's about building a community. So when the Jets try to challenge that future by making things difficult for their Puerto Rican neighbors, Bernardo responds by assembling his own gang, the Sharks, to protect their new home.

Naturally, the rivalry doesn't sit well with Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James), two veteran law enforcement officials who are sick and tired of breaking up the near-constant brawls between the two gangs, especially when neither side is willing to cooperate with the police. And with the New York Housing Authority dead set on demolishing the slums of the Upper West Side in order to pave the way for blocks and blocks of luxury apartment residences, the conflict shows no signs of letting up, even though the figurative battleground on which the Jets and the Sharks fight is starting to look more and more like a literal one with each passing day.

Of course, things really come to a head once Bernardo finds out about Tony and Maria. And, as with the previous iterations, the revelation is just the impetus these characters need to burst into song and dance. From Elgort and Zegler's effortless crooning on ballads like "Maria," "Tonight" and "I Feel Pretty" to Alvarez and DeBose's playful banter on the toe-tapping "America," not to mention Faist and his fellow Jets' energetic rendition of the whimsical "Gee, Officer Krupke," there's not a sour note to be found. Yet, when it comes to how well the actual story elements fare, the results are somewhat less harmonious, a fact that owes more to the source material's six-decade-old heritage rather than the quality of the screenplay by longtime Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner.

Suffice to say, fans of the stage play or the original 1961 movie version are sure to be delighted by this thoroughly modern yet surprisingly traditional reimagining. Whether it's the spectacular cinematography and production and costume design or the spectacle of Justin Peck's choreography, there's no doubt that West Side Story is one of Spielberg's finest cinematic achievements. Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein would be proud.

West Side Story releases December 10th, 2021 from 20th Century Studios. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 36 min.

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