Film Review: WEST SIDE STORY (2021): Steven Spielberg Returns with an Exquisite Though Slightly Familiar Remake

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Ansel Elgort Rachel Zegler West Side Story

West Side Story Review

West Side Story (2021) Film Review, a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Mike Faist, Josh Andres Rivera, Iris Menas, David Aviles Morales and Sebastian Serra.

Director Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story is a welcome re-working of the late 1950’s musical and the 1961 film of the same name. Written by Tony Kushner, this new film showcases the tremendous talents of Ansel Elgort, and to an even greater degree, Rachel Zegler. Ariana DeBose offers a terrifically fine performance in her supporting role as well. These three principal players ultimately make the remake succeed despite some striking, unchanged similarities to the original film. Spielberg is constantly one of our most fascinating filmmakers and, here, hooks the viewer with the likable performances he gets from his cast although some of the musical sequences are not quite on the level of the original film. Nevertheless, West Side Story is completely awe-inspiring throughout with visuals that are simply Oscar-worthy and songs which are familiar but reliable and entertaining to watch.

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You probably know the storyline already. Two rival gangs in New York City called the Jets and the Sharks are initially the central players in the movie. One gang is white while the other is Puerto Rican. There is a leader of each set of characters. David Alvarez portrays Bernardo who is the head of the Sharks and Mike Faist plays Riff who leads the Jets. However, the central male character in the film is Tony (Ansel Elgort of The Goldfinch) who would be a more prominent player in the Jets, but he nearly killed someone and has spent some time in jail as a result. He works as a stock boy in a local drug store run by a widow named Valentina (the terrific Rita Moreno from the original film). The catalyst for the film’s main plot is a dance that Tony attends where he meets the beautiful sister of Bernardo, Maria (Rachel Zegler). Maria has come to the event with Chino (Josh Andres Rivera). When Tony and Maria get close to one another, however, the others briefly disappear in the background, and the two become each other’s world at the dance. They separate but fate will allow them to find one another again. Their passion towards each other runs too deep to be ignored.

The plot thickens when Tony finds Maria on the fire escape of a building and sings a song about his new fascination which is properly titled “Maria.” These two would-be lovers agree to meet by a train station and pursue their admirations despite the obvious reservations Bernardo has towards his sister’s new relationship.

This film makes the characters’ cultural backgrounds come to life. There are scenes where the characters speak Spanish without the need for subtitles which is an excellent choice because it fully defines the people portrayed in the film and their heritage. Occasionally, a character will ask what a word means to clarify the really important words spoken but otherwise, some of the key players speak as they would in real life.

Bernardo’s love interest is the fierce, independent Anita (played to perfection by Ariana DeBose). Bernardo wants Anita to have a lot of kids, but she refuses to give in claiming she doesn’t want to have children she cannot properly support. One of the movie’s best singing and dancing numbers comes when the song “America” comes on and DeBose takes center stage in this sequence as she sings about her admiration for living in her country with her friends. Much later on, Anita’s cultural background comes into play as she questions the integrity of those surrounding her who don’t appreciate the beauty in life that she does. DeBose is a wonderful performer and every scene she’s in displays raw vulnerability and watching her is nothing short of delightful.

Of course, the requisite songs, “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty” are all here and they’re done quite well. Spielberg sets up his scenes with proper introductions and always keeps the viewer immersed in the material throughout even if sometimes, the nature of the plot gets in the way of logic but that’s hardly Spielberg’s (or Kushner’s) fault given the source material.

Elgort is fascinating to watch and has come a long way as an actor. He is a romantic lead with charisma, depth and intelligence. Zegler can slightly outshine him at times because she’s, in a word, mesmerizing. Still, despite any reservations, the two stars play off each other remarkably well with enough chemistry to make audiences believe in their forbidden love affair. Zegler will most likely be a huge star thanks to her fine turn here in which she is radiant and sophisticated through the entire film. It’s a grand performance.

The supporting cast is, for the most part, reliable. Iris Menas portrays Anybodys who wants to be a Jet but is different and doesn’t necessarily fit in. Menas is an interesting performer and keeps the viewer wondering which way the character will turn next. As the law, Brian d’Arcy James and Corey Stoll excel above their mediocre characterizations and Alvarez, himself, makes the most of his role here and offers a compelling turn that is among one of the best performances in the supporting cast. DeBose could get an Oscar nomination. She’s that strong in her forceful role.

West Side Story is long at two hours and thirty-six minutes but if you haven’t seen the original, you will hardly notice. Those who have seen the first film may find themselves occasionally waiting for their favorite song to come on but will also appreciate the new generation of performers who have mastered the material. The singing and dancing here are far above proficient, and the choreography jumps off the screen in the early scenes especially, making the film likely to get technical nods come Oscar time.

Tony and Maria create a relationship that can remind one of Romeo and Juliet or even Jack and Rose from Titanic. Forbidden affairs are always the most compelling ones to watch and the onscreen chemistry between Elgort and Zegler will be talked about for years to come. It may not be perfect but West Side Story is Spielberg’s most ambitious film in some time and will keep people talking throughout the holiday season. It should not be missed.

Rating: 8/10

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