West Side Story: Timeless in its youth

Dec. 18, 2021, 2:54 p.m. | By Isabelle Yang | 2 years, 2 months ago

Steven Spielberg returns with an updated version of the original 1961 film

Note: This review contains spoilers.

West Side Story, the timeless classic of American culture, returns to the big screen. Directed by the world-renowned Steven Spielberg, this updated rendition keeps the beauty and significance of the original while adding flair for modern audiences. 

With the opening whistles, Spielberg transports viewers to the gritty streets of Manhattan’s West Side in 1957, home to two teenage street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The opening number, "Jet Song" starts in true West Side Story fashion as the vivacious youth whirl through the streets to the choreography of Justin Peck, staking their claim. Fighting for the same turf are the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). However, in the midst of this conflict, a forbidden love story between Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and a Jet named Tony (Ansel Elgort) blossoms, and their tragic fate is written in the stars. 

Their love story is inspired by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and won the hearts of many in the original Broadway musical and 1961 film adaptation by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. In Spielberg's interpretation, there is additional vibrance in the cinematography. In the iconic dance-off scene where Maria and Tony meet, the camera effectively captures the movement of the dancers and the energy they exude. With the Jets dressed in cool tones and the Sharks dressed in warm tones, the visual contrast as the two dance head-to-head only accentuates the tension of a magnificent scene. For the famous "America" number, the vitality and richness of Anita (Ariana DeBose) and Bernardo’s dancing is mesmerizing. Instead of dancing on a dingy rooftop, Spielberg has them spill out into the busy city street, radiating youthful passion and exuberance. 

An updated rendition to the original, Spielberg's West Side Story is a must-watch. (Picture Courtesy of 20th Century Studios).

West Side Story would not be itself without the ingenious score by Leonard Bernstein or lyrics by the late great Steven Sondheim. A masterpiece in and of itself, the instrumentation forms the essence of the musical numbers. The trumpets and brass bring the energetic dancing on-screen to life while the strings swell to complement the voices of the actors and actresses. Zegler's powerful voice is stunning in "Tonight" and "I Have a Love" as she reaches for the high notes, and Elgort shows off his rich tone in "Maria."

But at its core, Spielberg's interpretation is still the same story that everyone knows and loves - one of star-crossed love, hate, forgiveness, and youth. The story touches upon topics still relevant today, like the fear of immigrants and the unknown; the difficulty of forgiving and the pain of loss; and love that knows no bound. 

However, this does not mean that the film is without flaws. Even in the original, the plot feels fictional. Maria and Tony's relationship has nearly no emotional foundation, and the death of Bernardo is unrealistic. Though Bernardo kills Riff (Mike Faist) accidentally, Tony’s character lacks the grit and hate to purposefully kill Bernardo. Spielberg tries to fix these in his version, adding a date for Maria and Tony and giving Tony a background of aggression. Yet, these changes do little to solve these problems. The film is as fanciful as ever, but it is this romanticism that gives the film its charm of audacious adolescence.

The original West Side Story is and always will be a masterpiece, which is why it is so valuable to create different versions of it as Spielberg explains. "Great stories should be told over and over again, in part to reflect different perspectives and moments in time into the work," Spielberg says. Though a remake, West Side Story still highlights both the hot-headedness and beauty of youth, retaining its place as a staple of American theater.

West Side Story is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, brief smoking, strong language, suggestive material, and thematic content. It is now showing in theaters, including at Regal Majestic & IMAX, AMC Wheaton Mall 9, and AMC Center Park 8.

Last updated: Dec. 19, 2021, 2:56 p.m.

Tags: Steven Spielberg West Side Story

Isabelle Yang. Hi! I'm Isabelle (she/her). Outside of SCO, I love to listen to music, hike and solve puzzles. More »

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