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Review of West Side Story Review: Spielberg’s Musical Shines With Spectacle

A whistle once again echoes through the streets of 1960s New York City as cinematic legend Steven Spielberg directs West Side Story, the second movie adaptation of the 1957 stage musical. This film features the Polish-American gangsters known as the Jets facing off with a rival Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks. As the gangs battle for their territory, a former Jet named Tony (Ansel Elgort) and the lead Shark’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), fall in love.

The stage production was first adapted into a film 60 years ago with a movie that has lasted through the decades as one of the greatest musicals ever made. Spielberg had big shoes to fill, but as the director of some of the most iconic movies in cinematic history, this musical was always going to be in good hands. While this is Spielberg’s first time directing a musical, he helms this film as if he had been working in the genre for years.

In the wrong hands, this movie could have forever been compared negatively to the 1961 film, but this is a brilliantly crafted musical that hits all the right notes and exceeds expectations. The movie updates West Side Story for the modern era while also feeling authentically ’60s with the gorgeous production design. The sets and the deliberate costume choices all allow the film to feel as if it is on a larger, grander scale from the original.

With a larger budget and excellent source material, Spielberg made a movie for the ages with some of the best musical numbers of the year. Some musical numbers surpass the original film, with “America” elevated to an incredible spectacle of vibrant colors and superb dance choreography. The “Gee, Officer Krupke” number has a new setting used very creatively, and the balcony scene where Tony and Maria sing “Tonight” is romantic and unforgettable.

West Side Story premiered three days after the death of Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist behind the movie’s incredible songs. It’s magical to hear his beautiful words sung on the big screen paired with Leonard Bernstein’s enchanting musical score. All of the music in this movie remains phenomenal, and we can thank Sondheim for his outstanding contributions to the musical genre as they genuinely shine through in this film.

west side story sneak peek

Zegler is a newcomer in the film industry, and she nails her role as Maria, selling all of her character’s emotions and doing a magnificent job in the musical numbers. Ariana DeBose is excellent as Anita, and the film makes the perfect choice to bring in Rita Moreno after her previous role as Anita in the 1961 film. This time around, she portrays Valentina, Tony’s boss, and her character sings a breathtaking rendition of “Somewhere” that sounds wonderful.

Elgort has moments where he gets to shine, but he’s one of the film’s weaker aspects as a generally uninspired leading man. The movie may have benefitted from another star as the protagonist, but everyone in the Jets and the Sharks is well-cast and delivers their all in the musical and dance numbers. The film’s only other issue may be the placement of the “I Feel Pretty” musical number, which is a wonderfully directed sequence but is placed between two of the most dramatic scenes in the film. The jarring tonal shift from sad to joyous to sad is distracting, but Spielberg’s conviction in his direction helps a lot of the movie work.

West Side Story has terrific cinematography and a vibe like no other. This movie is stunning from start to finish, and the musical performances on display are epic. Spielberg’s film doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original but features so much spectacle in the extravagant sequences that this is one of the best movies of the year.

SCORE: 8/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8 equates to “Great.” While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the art succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.

Disclosure: Critic went to.a press screening for our West Side Story review.

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