What to Watch This Weekend: West Side Story

(L-R): Mike Faist as Riff, Ansel Elgort as Tony and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

West Side Story is the musical tale of star-crossed lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler). Set in late 1950s New York, Tony is the former leaders of the Jets—a rough and tough gang of Anglo teenagers. The Jets have a new problem: the Sharks. Led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), these Puerto Rican youths are new to the neighborhood and want a piece of the territory to themselves so they can feel safe. Riff (Mike Faist), the new head of the Jets, recruits Tony to help end the fighting once and for all. Instead, Tony meets Maria, who happens to be Bernardo’s sister and the two fall for each other much to the dismay of everyone around them.

What works in West Side Story is the adaptive nature of the production. Director Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark) takes a masterful approach in deciding what elements to update, evolve, or remain constant. First and foremost is the script—Tony Kushner’s (Lincoln, Munich) work to reinvigorate the dialogue is simply excellent. Kushner captures the original themes from the 1961 film while creating wholly new exchanges that give the characters more depth and purpose. Most notably are Tony’s updated backstory that had him spend a year in prison for fighting, and Riff’s persona being for more toxic than affable.

RELATED: Rachel Zegler From West Side Story Cast As Snow White: Why Is Disney Still So Eurocentric?

Next, the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) and the production design by Adam Stockhausen (The French Dispatch, Ready Player One) and Rena DeAngelo (Bridge of Spies, Mad Men) is outstanding. To call West Side Story gorgeous symphony would almost be an understatement as its characters dance through NYC’s summer days and nights. Choreographer Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet finds a way to honor the original movements of the stage play but modernizes them to feel a little more naturally aggressive. The entire experience is an absolute visual delight.

The biggest downside to the West Side Story (2021) is that individuals with no prior connection to the material may not appreciate the upgrades or find the story slightly inaccessible. At times, West Side Story seems to expect that watchers have a general understanding of the plot which is also (and obviously) a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Some new dialogue even goes so far to poke fun at this, especially with Valentina (Rita Moreno) basically calling Tony crazy for instantly falling in love after meeting Maria for 3 minutes—this joke doesn’t land unless you’re familiar with the narrative. Additionally, the lyrics are fast. For those who have never heard the music before, it might be hard to keep up with all the words when there’s also so much happening on screen during each song.

West Side Story is fabulous. It is the new high bar in remakes as Spielberg uses current techniques to shine up an already excellent story. This easily justifies its existence and purpose in giving this tale as old as time to a new generation. Highly recommended.

Recommended if you Enjoyed: In the Heights, Rent, Hamilton

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