“West Side Story”: a modernized classic

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Jesse Grant

Grace Sherban reviews the new adaptation of “West Side Story.”

Grace Sherban , Arts & Life Assistant Editor

Steven Spielberg, arguably one of the most influential directors of all time, has never directed a movie musical. So like any true professional, his first foray into the making of movie musicals was to remake one the greatest films in this genre, “West Side Story.” Originally appearing on Broadway in 1957, the first film adaptation of “West Side Story” was released in 1961 and has since become a must-watch for anyone interested in film. 

A reimagining of “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” follows the Jets and Sharks: two gangs of opposite ethnic origins whose animosity grows in the course of less than two days. Tony, a member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks, at a dance. The main conflict of the story revolves around two star-crossed lovers, despite hate between their respective gangs.

Remaking a staple movie musical is no small feat, but despite these expectations, Spielberg struck gold again and made one of the most captivating movies of 2021. The care that was taken to realistically portray the Puerto Ricans as more than just stereotypes by screenwriter Tony Kushner comments on the injustices felt by these people during the late 1950s, which is something the original movie showed little interest in exploring. The choice to have large portions of the dialogue spoken in Spanish without subtitles makes the world these characters inhabit more lifelike. 

Spielberg’s first attempt at directing a movie musical will go down in history as one of the most unique, enthralling stage-to-screen adaptations of this decade.”

From the production design to the color grading choices, Spielberg does not disappoint throughout the entirety of the film’s runtime. The visuals are modern and vivid but are still grounded in the era that it takes place in. The camera is able to capture everything from the small details in an actor’s face to the large, intricate dance sequences originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins and modernized by Justin Peck. The “Dance at the Gym (Mambo)” and the “America” sequence in particular are so mesmerizing, as all the different aspects of filmmaking come together to create a captivating viewer experience. 

The cinematography would be in vain if it was not for the performances elevating what the camera is capturing. The role of Maria is widely considered to be one of the most coveted soprano roles on Broadway; Rachel Zegler does not shy away from the challenge in her feature film debut. Zegler’s voice is able to perfectly capture the )intensity of the songs written by the legendary Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim. The light, breeziness of “I Feel Pretty” followed by Zegler’s duet with Ariana DeBose in the tense “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love” sequence show the dramatic range of both actresses.

Zegler stars as Maria in the “Dance at the Gym (Mambo)” scene. (Alamy) 

The Best Supporting Actress winner DeBose stars as Anita, the girlfriend of Maria’s older brother Bernardo. The role of Anita requires the ability to act, sing and dance which are three qualities that DeBose proved herself to be an expert in throughout the runtime of the film. David Alveraz, who plays Bernardo, is hypnotizing to watch as he pirouettes across the screen and his chemistry with DeBose is unmatched.  

The most notable exception to the otherwise phenomenal casting choices is Ansel Elgort, who plays the role of Tony. Elgort’s vocals were not up to par with the rest of the cast and when he did dance, it was clear that he was not on the level of his castmates. With Algort’s personal life being at the center of many controversies, his presence in the film’s trailer and subsequent press tour was limited. 

 In a Hollywood that is becoming increasingly flooded with remakes, 2021’s “West Side Story” sets the standard for how to appropriately update a story in a way that enhances the filmmaking. Spielberg’s first attempt at directing a movie musical will go down in history as one of the most unique, enthralling stage-to-screen adaptations of this decade. The Oscar winning “West Side Story” is streaming on HBO Max and Disney Plus.