Thursday, December 9, 2021

West Side Story - Review


Remakes are odd. They happen so often, yet very few people are ever caught clamoring for classics to get a new take. So when news broke of a remake of the 1961 Oscar winner West Side Story, to say that many were skeptical would be an understatement, even with a celebrated, legendary director like Steven Spielberg at the helm. But now the film is actually here, and it’s fair to say that no one should ever doubt the great Steven Spielberg ever again.

The building blocks of West Side Story remain largely the same. A forbidden romance between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) threatens lives and wellbeing of all those who fall within their orbit. It’s Romeo and Juliet, just pulled into late 1950s New York City. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner sprinkle in a few thoughtful changes, rather than just changing things for the sake of change, but the bones of the story remain essentially the same. 

Even with a solid foundation to work from, a musical is nothing without a stellar cast, and West Side Story has talent in spades. With perhaps only one weak link amongst its ranks, the ensemble here is among the year’s best, with a few standouts sure to be recognized throughout the awards season. The world is introduced to Mike Faist, who steals a number of scenes here as the vulnerable but sharp Riff, and will undoubtedly make a name for himself in the wake of his performance here. As Anita, Ariana DeBose proves again that she’s ready to be a star, and her chemistry with both David Alvarez and Rachel Zegler makes the third act’s emotional beats hit even harder. 

However, the true star-making turn here is from Zegler herself. The actress won the role after a nationwide hunt for Maria, and makes her big screen debut in one of the biggest movies of the year. Zegler can sing, there’s no doubt about that, but where she lights up the screen is in her portrayal of the innocence of Maria, but never comes off as naive. Her transformation from hopeless, wistful romantic to a woman torn apart by tragedies. 

The sum of all of this— a solid foundation of a story, a phenomenal ensemble cast and a top notch screenplay — still doesn’t even cover half of the remarkable filmmaking on display here. Steven Spielberg has never made a musical in his decade spanning career, and yet it feels as though the man has already mastered the intricacies of framing a musical number. From the sweeping camerawork of the numerous elaborate dance numbers to the intimate moments between Tony and Maria, Spielberg does precisely how to frame every inch of this film. The film’s most vigorous numbers leap off the screen, evoking a golden era of musicals, and long absent movie magic.

Magic is the keyword here for West Side Story. Each of these magnificent elements add up to an impressive big screen spectacle that’s a near perfect musical experience. If you’re going to take a swing at remaking a clear cinematic classic, you better aim for the fences, and hope it makes it over. And Steven Spielberg absolutely has a home run on his hands here, and shows us all why he is one of the most respected, celebrated and legendary filmmakers of all time. 

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