Based on the acclaimed 1957 stage musical of the same name, West Side Story returns to the big screen with Steven Spielberg at the helm. This timeless story of forbidden love is set in the midst of a turf war between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage gangs vying for control of the streets.
One of the all-time greatest narratives, West Side Story presents a love story that is as timeless as you can get. The budding romance between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) is the heart and soul of the film – a beautifully tragic retelling of the forbidden love that brings the rival gang turf war to tipping point. With themes of love, heartbreak and hatred, along with a socio-political exploration of racism and immigration, West Side Story packs an emotional punch in more ways than one. Despite being a familiar narrative with regular beats that I knew were coming, I found myself instantly locked in to this story, these characters and the music. It has you forget that this is an adaptation, and locks you into the moment – with every scene as gripping as the last. From stage to screen, the narrative is adapted as faithfully as possible – hitting every key story beat and running at a very smooth pace throughout. It’s never in a rush and captures the magic of the musical wonderfully.
The one element where this film benefits over the stage musical is the advantage of cinema. Stage performances always rely on some level of audience imagination to fill the gaps that just aren’t possible to include – such as various detailed settings and the severity of violence. Steven Spielberg, and of course cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, have crafted an absolute beauty here – a true visual masterpiece. Every single shot is beautifully composed and undeniably stunning to look at. The framing of close interior shots and sweeping exterior streetscapes really brings the world to life and sucks you right into this diverse and struggling neighbourhood. It’s certainly one of the best-shot films of the year. Even in terms of the way violence is shot – that’s an area that’s harder to convincingly depict on stage. Here, the various fight sequences are filmed in a very grounded and gritty manner, whilst still retaining the cinematic beauty consistent with every other scene. Everything works in complete unison to create a visual work of art so breathtaking that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) has some serious competition.
One of the big questions going into this adaptation was how the musical numbers would be presented on screen. The answer – the singing and dancing is phenomenal across the board. Firstly, you have the slower, more sombre tunes which don’t require a whole lot of intense choreography. That didn’t stop Spielberg from making each one stand out through calculated camera movements and subtle choreography, making the most of each song’s setting and surroundings. Then you’ve got the key musical centrepieces which are everything I could’ve wanted and more. From the iconic Prologue to the more upbeat America, every one of these grand musical numbers will leave you in complete awe – with the lyrics sure to be rattling through your mind long after exiting the theatre.
Choosing the right performer for the right role is important in any film, but it’s even more crucial for West Side Story. The performers need to fit within the parameters set by those who played the role in the past and fit the already laid-out personalities. The casting here is absolutely on point, with every actor embodying their respective role brilliantly, and delivering some award-worthy performances. The one I was most skeptical of, in terms of the lead cast, was Ansel Elgort. There’s no questioning he’s a great actor, it was more about whether he’d stand out too much, being the most well-known of the lead cast by a country mile. Those worries were put to rest quickly as he plays the role of Tony really well and ensures every single line delivery is on point, bringing a good dose of charisma to some key scenes. Ansel may have been good, but the standout roles are certainly from both Rachel Zegler (Maria) and Ariana DeBose (Anita). For someone who’d never acted in front of a camera before, having only performed on stage in school and regional productions, Rachel Zegler is incredible in every on-screen moment. The emotion she brings to her performance is powerful and really helps create a great audience connection and love for Maria’s journey. I’m expecting her to pick up at least a nomination at the upcoming Academy Awards.
I mentioned Ariana DeBose, and she’s great because not only does she have a couple of captivating, emotionally-impactful moments, but she also brings a comedic touch through her upbeat performance. Her character’s relationship with Maria is an important arc in the narrative, so the electric chemistry she shares with Rachel Zegler plays a big role in buying into their emotional journey. It should also be noted that Rita Moreno makes her return to the West Side Story family as Valentina, after having played Anita in the 1961 classic. Here, she delivers a performance full of heart that stands out greatly, even with relatively limited screen time.
In the end, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a stellar adaptation, capturing the essence of the stage production and translating it to the screen phenomenally well. The narrative is packed full of powerful, emotional moments, the performances are incredible and the cinematography is undeniably stunning. The singing and dancing are world class and absolutely breathtaking to watch – worth the price of admission alone. This really is a spectacular film, one that never dips in quality and is worth every second spent watching. Without a doubt one of the best films of the year, Steven Spielberg adds another must-watch instant classic to his filmography.