REVIEW: Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ doesn’t sizzle like its 60s counterpart

Tonight… Tonight… I’m rather disappointed tonight.

Because I didn’t enjoy this “West Side Story” adaptation as much as I hoped I would.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, this marks the second time the 1957 musical was adapted for the screen, the first released in 1961. In the film, there are two gangs in New York City the film revolves around, the Jets and the Sharks, the latter made up of Puerto Rican immigrants. Tensions have already been high between the two, but their battles appear ready to reach an even higher level of violence.

Before that takes place, though, both gangs end up at a dance. There, a former member of the Jets, Tony (Ansel Elgort), meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of the Sharks leader. While the two fall in love, their relationship only complicates the situation between the two groups.

Spielberg’s “Story” feels too stuffed. The film, penned by Tony Kushner, adds a lot more to this “Romeo and Juliet” inspired tale than what’s needed. In this adaptation, the character Tony isn’t just a former member of the Jets who’s trying to improve his life, he’s on parole for a violent crime in his past.

Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) isn’t just the Sharks leader, he’s an up and coming boxer. The character Chino, who in the other film was just a member of the Sharks, is now a a promising student.

Even the Sharks themselves seem to be more than just a gang. At one point they seem more like a vigilante protection group with support from the Puerto Rican community.

It’s understandable that the filmmakers wanted to add more complexities to this story, but it comes off as unnecessary filler. This is a “Romeo and Juliet” story, there are two factions that dislike each other, and two people fall in love between them. At its core, those elements are what’s needed to make this work.

Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

Much of what’s added feels like handholding. To know why Tony isn’t part of the Jets anymore, they had to add a parole background. To make Chino’s part in the story more impactful, they add details about him seeking an education.

It is true that this film isn’t trying to be a direct remake of the 61 movie, it’s another adaptation of the musical. However, it’s hard not to compare the two, and there are a few things that were done so much better in the 61 flick.

One example is how Spielberg’s film has the song “I Feel Pretty” take place after the infamous rumble between the two gangs. In the 61 picture, it took place before the rumble, which worked much better, as in the new adaptation, it causes too a rushed tonal shift.

Another is how the movie handles the scene where Maria and Tony sort of exchange vows. In the 1961 film, the scene is cute, charming and endearing. In the remake, it feels grey, gloomy and loveless.

The execution of many musical numbers, such as “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Cool” by the cast and crew is exceptional, though, which does aid the film. Other strong musical moments include the duet “A Boy Like That” and the scene where all the characters are at the dance.

The only musical scene that feels flawed is “America.” It’s a situation where bigger isn’t better. In the 1961 film, “America” is performed by the Sharks and their girlfriends on a rooftop. It feels contained, intimate and personal. In this adaptation, it takes place across the neighborhood, and the scope felt too large.

The song feels something like a debate, albeit a fun one, but it loses the intimacy of a conversation with friends when it becomes a sprawling scene across a city block.

It’s a conflicting situation, because the filmmaking prowess is of course there. Spielberg has had ups and downs but the director is experienced and knows how to make a scene, it just didn’t work for that particular song.

Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.

Aside from that song, though, the top tier filmmaking from Spielberg and his crew, combined with timeless music, does elevate “West Side Story.” The film is gorgeous to watch and continuously captures one’s attention.

One example of the quality is the scene where the characters are preparing and heading for the rumble. It’s an intense, engaging moment with great shots, such as an overhead one where the shadows of both gangs emerge and head toward each other.

The level of quality is on display for a lot of the movie, although the way the ending is handled leaves a lot to be desired. The final climactic scenes feel rushed, with not enough time to breathe. It also doesn’t help that the lead actors aren’t up to the task for the emotional moment.

Rachel Zegler certainly succeeds when it comes to the singing parts but it’s noticeable at points that this is her first acting role. Ansel Elgort, meanwhile, feels stiff for much of the film.

The passion and love his character feels for Maria doesn’t entirely come across as convincing. He’s often upstaged by other performers on screen. The two leads also lack a good chemistry with each other.

Fortunately, the supporting cast does pick up the slack. Alvarez is superb as Bernardo, portraying the character’s pride and protectiveness quite well. Ariana DeBose is also great as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, giving a fierce, powerful performance.

There’s talent in front of and behind the camera, and it shines through in many spots. However, this “West Side Story” is bogged down with unnecessary filler, and hurt by a romance with little heart. Plus, the way the iconic ending is handled is disappointing. 2.75 out of 5.


Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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