The Reel Review
Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose star in Steven Spielberg’s romantic musical adaptation of the Shakespearean Romeo & Juliet tragedy set in 1950s Hell’s Kitchen in New York. When two young people, a second-generation European immigrant and a Puerto Rican, fall in love, it sparks a deadly rivalry between the neighborhood’s two rival ethnic street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, set in a climate of hatred and racial intolerance.
In a masterful stroke of genius, Spielberg’s West Side Story both improves upon the iconic, original film adaptation, while paying respectful homage to it and the Broadway play. With eye-popping cinematography reminiscent of the era’s vintage Technicolor movie musicals, West Side Story showcases dazzling set designs, a more racially appropriate cast, incredible singing, and intricate dance choreography. Elgort, in his musical film debut, and Zegler, in her film debut, are both exceptional, and in what is an all-but-certain lock for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, DeBose has a can’t-look-away, charismatic screen presence as the skirt-twirling emotional tornado, Anita. She is mesmerizing.
With a meticulous attention to detail, Spielberg even pays homage to the original film’s camera shots and dance choreography, which although a bit dated and hokey at times, is still extremely impressive for its intricacy. Rita Moreno, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role of Anita in the 1961 film, delivers a heartfelt performance in a customized, more central role. Spielberg also reimagines the tomboy character of Anybodys as transgender with nonbinary Broadway actor Iris Menas. Get those Oscars ready, folks. West Side Story is an emotionally stirring, cinematic experience that will captivate both lovers of the original screen adaptation as well as a new generation of musical aficionados.
• West Side Story lyricist Stephen Sondheim died of heart disease on November 26, 2021 at the age of 91. Spielberg says Sondheim, who saw a screening of the movie in February, sent him a simple note a week before he died. Quoting a line that Action says to Anybodys near the end of the film, it read, “SS2… you done good buddy boy. — SS1.”
• Spielberg decided against English subtitles for the Spanish speaking scenes to give equal respect to both cultures/languages.
• The original 1961 West Side Story won ten Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno as Anita.