West Side Story holds a very special place in my heart, as it was the first musical that my mother ever introduced me to. It sparked a lifelong passion for musical theater that led me straight to writing this review. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is nothing short of a masterpiece and I loved being able to take my mother to see it with me and experience it anew with her again.
2021 unexpectedly became the year of the musical with Into the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, The Score, tick, tick…BOOM!, and Cyrano premiering (and screening) this year, and West Side Story had a lot to live up to. The original West Side Story had major issues, those of which include, most egregiously, brownface. Fortunately, Spielberg cast actual Latinos to portray the Puerto Rican cast of the film.
While the original West Side Story is its own masterpiece on many fronts, it paints very broad stripes and is mostly isolated in its storytelling. In this film, Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s screenplay further contextualizes the story by building on the hints of a larger world presented in the original and he explores the fallout of revitalization programs, like the one tearing down houses to build the Lincoln Center. It gives a jarring backdrop to the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. It’s not just xenophobia fueling the Jets, it’s housing uncertainty anxiety being weaponized by the police force to fan the flames of their xenophobia.
Spielberg also gives more substance to Anita, Bernardo, Maria, and the Sharks, and while elements have been critiqued by the Latinx community, it is a marked improvement from the original film. Many of the choices that he made in the film seem to be intentional course corrections, under the guidance of original cast member Rita Moreno, who acted as an executive producer on West Side Story, in addition to playing Valentina. Though, the film is still clearly aimed towards white audiences.
I had my reservations about watching West Side Story after the allegations about Ansel Elgort came out last year. The story requires you to care about Tony, as much as Maria does, and that is made difficult with the looming real-world complications. Setting that aside for a moment, Elgort does give a very good performance, even though his voice isn’t quite on par with some of the other performers. Elgort and Rachel Zegler have believable chemistry, which fuels their whirlwind two-day relationship.
While Tony and Maria are the center point of West Side Story, I found myself far more interested in the story of Anita (Ariana DeBose) and Bernado (David Alvarez). DeBose and Alvarez were electric on screen, both as dancing partners and as scene partners. They both had natural star power and I can’t wait to see where their careers go from here. Speaking of stars, Rachel Zegler makes an incredible debut as Maria—she is filled with grace, innocence, and beauty.
Spielberg also chose to make a few minor changes with Tony and Maria, in particular, he gave them a little more time to fall in love with one another. So much of their original love story takes place within a small corner of New York City, but in this West Side Story, they take a train to a church-turned-museum where they make their vows to one another. In this, Sielberg reminds the audience that there is a world outside of their insular community, and it gives a glimmer of hope that makes the somber ending that much more gutwrenching.
My only truly divisive opinion on this film is how Mike Faist chose to portray Riff. In this West Side Story, he is played far more viciously than the affable portrayal of Russ Tamblyn in 1961. In the original, it was easy to believe that Riff and Tony were best friends, but in this, their personalities seemed so at odds with one another I wasn’t convinced.
Perhaps it was meant to show audiences how far Tony has come in rehabilitating his image after his stint in prison and their contrasting personalities were meant to underline that. While Faist’s cutthroat portrayal didn’t necessarily mesh with how I see Riff, he did give an incredible performance during the Rumble, particularly where he realizes that there’s more on the line than just two gangs fighting over turf that they’re all going to lose.
The costumes of West Side Story could take up their very own review, as Paul Tazewell recreated the aesthetics of the original production while making it his own. Tazewell is no stranger to costuming musicals, having done the costumes for Hamilton, as well as Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and The Wiz Live!. I was really struck by the color palette that he chose for “America”—opting for vibrant yellows and reds, which stood in sharp contrast with the quieter purples and reds from the 1961 film. Additionally, the flush of blues used during the “Dance at the Gym” really created a dreamlike quality that benefited Maria and Tony’s eyes meeting across the gym.
Steven Spielberg's West Side Story is not so much a retelling as it is an elevated remake of a musical that clearly captured Spielberg's heart when he first watched it. Where some directors see classic musicals as a playground to reshape them with their own vision, Spielberg approached West Side Story with love and adoration and found ways to build upon something that was already beloved. Even with the choices that he made with the cinematography and the gritty, desaturated grading of the final product, West Side Story feels like a love letter to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ original film.
Is West Side Story Spielberg's best film? That may be a difficult verdict to make when his filmography includes films like Schindler's List, but it is definitely near the top of the list. I am anxious to see if he will go after another musical venture because he has proven that he knows how to take a beloved musical and make it even better.
West Side Story is a visually beautiful and emotionally devastating film. It takes the original source material and finds a way to not only improve upon it but elevate it to a higher echelon. It is a sobering reminder that love does not actually conquer all.
West Side Story is in theaters tonight.
Maggie Lovitt is the Managing Editor of Entertainment at Wealth of Geeks where she covers her favorite topics: Star Wars and pop culture nerdery. She is also a freelance writer and News Editor at Collider. She has had bylines at Inverse, Polygon, and Dorkside of the Force. She is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association.
When she is not covering entertainment news, she can be found on one of her numerous podcasts or on her YouTube channel. In her free time, she is also a novelist, screenwriter, actor, and member of the Screen Actors Guild.