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(SPOILER-FREE) 20th Century's West Side Story - A Vast Improvement Over the 1961 Original

Risk everything for true love.

West Side Story is a 2021 musical romantic crime film directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner, produced by Amblin Entertainment, and distributed by 20th Century Studios. The film is based on the 1957 musical, West Side Story, which, in turn, is based on William Shakespeare's 1597 play, Romeo and Juliet. It stars Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort. It was nominated for and won Best Supporting Actress, while it was just nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Sound. This is the second West Side Story film. It was preceded by West Side Story (1961).

"Who are you: Friend or foe?" -Riff


In 1960s New York, two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, have a feud that takes over the streets. When teenagers Tony and Maria meet and fall in love, they must hide it because of the rivalry between their two sides. As the hatred between the gangs escalate, Tony and Maria must find a way to calm it down, otherwise everything they know and love will crumble.

Risk everything for true love.

Background Info: My Expectations

The original 1961 adaptation of West Side Story is regarded as a classic by many. And while I can appreciate the fact that it gave Broadway adaptations a big boost, I don't really like it. I find it cheesy and outdated, so, naturally, I wasn't super excited for this movie.

When I heard Spielberg was directing, my expectations went up...a lot. Suddenly, I thought that this might be a good movie.

Then it opened with a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and people called it one of the best movies of the year. I was excited. Still held back, because I really do not like the original, but I was looking forward to this movie.

Did it live up to that...or did it disappoint?

Positive Aspects

Wow. He's done it again.

Steven Spielberg is the best. I love him so much. And he brings all of his directing tools and talent to this movie. From the beautiful cinematography to the amazing colors and symbolism, Spielberg just is something different. He can just direct the absolute snot out of any movie. And he does in West Side Story. I said this about Will Smith in King Richard, but I will boycott if he does not win Best Director for this movie. It is absolutely incredible. The imagery he is able to capture with the camera is like nothing I have ever seen. The way that he uses the red and blue contrasting colors to show the feud between the Jets and the Sharks is pure and simple genius. I love it so much.

And the performances in this film are fantastic. This cast is largely made up of unknowns, with the exception of Rita Moreno. And they are all just fabulous. The standouts are Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort as Maria and Tony. Zegler brings an emotion that Natalie Wood simply did not have in the first film. She makes this character so charming, likable, and naive because she is blinded by love. And Elgort does the same. There's an emotion brought to the role that wasn't there in the original. And he is so likable and so charming. I will get into their relationship later. The supporting cast (Ariana DeBose as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo, and Mike Faist as Riff) are also just incredible. This probably has the best all-around cast of the year thus far.

And this movie is just a modern re-telling of West Side Story. It doesn't change any major plot points. It doesn't have some added musical numbers. No, it stays faithful to the musical and the 1961 film. And that was the right direction to go. West Side Story is a tale as old as time, and my generation hasn't grown up with that. My grandparents love the original film. My parents and I don't. But I think that Spielberg has made West Side Story for a modern audience as well as for an older audience. He makes this a modern movie, but still stays faithful to the musical, so it doesn't alienate older viewers. And that was one hundred percent the correct way to go.

The production design is also breathtaking. The hairstyles and the sets and the costumes and the look feel like the 60s. I was shocked at how well it was able to be a modern movie while also having the vibe of the 1960s movie. That was another thing with the faithfulness. The costumes looked like they did 1961. The sets looked like they did in 1961. It was really special that they were able to do that.

One of the coolest things about West Side Story is the way that they are able to contrast colors. If you watch this movie, the Sharks (the Puerto Ricans) wear red for the most part. The Jets (the Americans) wear blue for the most part. And those colors are separated. But, when Tony and Maria are together, you can always find something that's mixing red and blue together in the shot. It's an incredible way to do symbolism, and it just reinforces Spielberg's greatness.

This movie is also incredibly emotional. I won't spoil anything for the two people on Earth that don't know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but it's a heavy movie. There's a lot of tension set up in the first half, and when that tension begins to release in the second half, it gets really emotional. They set these dominoes in a line, and then one major thing happens, and the dominoes begin to fall. It just becomes gut-punch after gut-punch after gut-punch. There were a lot of people crying in my theater. I didn't quite get there, but I almost did.

Tony and Maria's relationship is at the center of this movie. And that's another thing that I didn't find incredible about the 1961 film. But they nail it in this movie. Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler have perfect chemistry with each other. They feel like a real, good couple. They crack jokes. They make fun of each other from time to time. They are passionate about one another. And you really, really want them to make it out of this movie happy and okay. And that was a key element that the original did not have. But this movie absolutely does.

On the complete opposite side of things, the Jets and the Sharks are the worst. Their feud is the most frustrating part of this movie...and that's a good thing. The screenplay makes you hate them. You just want to see them stop fighting, hug it out, and have Tony and Maria be okay. Every time they fight, you think "No! Stop!". It's an extremely sad element that this movie adds, but it is a great element as well.

Finally, the musical numbers are pretty good. Some of them are great and some are decent, but they all are shot very well and acted out very well. The balcony scene, which is a famous scene from both Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, it done perfectly, and "Tonight" is probably the best number in the movie. "I Feel Pretty" and "Cool" are also great. The dancing was relatively cool in this film. It does feel a bit corny at times as these guys are trying to act tough but they are doing ballet moves, but the dance moves are still very fast and fun to look at.

Negative Aspects

The few changes that are made to this movie are, sadly, not great. The two major song changes were "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "America", both of which were kind of disappointing. "Gee, Officer Krupke" didn't feel like it serviced the plot and didn't match the tone of the movie at all. In the musical, though, it relieves the tension and does serve the plot, but they changed it so it doesn't do that in this movie. And "America" just felt kind of lame. It's a big, famous number in the original, and I felt like they didn't really add the energy required for that song in this movie.

The film also starts off pretty slow. It takes a little bit to find its footing. Once you get to the dance scene, it becomes great. But, before that, it slowly builds up its characters and its main conflict so that you know what's going on. I feel like they could've cut it down a little bit. Tony and Maria probably don't meet until about a half an hour into the film, and that makes it feel very slow in the beginning.

There are also a few scenes that are very dialogue-heavy that seem to never end. There's a scene where Bernardo and Anita are talking in the kitchen that just feels like it goes on forever. Sometimes, the dialogue is exposition or just something you really don't care about, and you just want it to cut to the next scene. And, while it didn't happen too often, when it did, it was quite annoying.

This is also a long movie. While watching it in the theater, I felt the runtime. And then I looked on IMDb and I saw that the movie is two hours and thirty-six minutes. That is ludicrous. This movie doesn't need that length at all. You could probably shave twenty minutes off this movie, and it's automatically better. Now, I did love this movie. It's a great film. But it could've honestly been one of my favorite movies if it had just deleted a few more parts and been two hours and ten minutes instead of two hours and forty minutes.

Should you see West Side Story?

No questions asked. One hundred percent. This is one of the best movies of the year. It's one of Steven Spielberg's best movies. It's one of the best musicals of all time. It is just firing on all cylinders. If you love the original, you will love this. If you don't love the original, like me, you will love this. If you love the musical, you will love this. If you love musicals in general, you will love this.

Go see West Side Story. Even if it doesn't sound like your thing, go give it a shot. It's an incredible movie.

Final Score

For somebody that doesn't like the original West Side Story, I was genuinely surprised at how much I liked this movie. Steven Spielberg is at the top of his game here, with a faithful, symbolic, fun, sad, and great adaptation of the stage musical.

This gets a Sweet. Age range is 10+.


Sweet (Great) Savory (Good) Sour (Bad)

Moldy (Terrible)

"West Side Story"

Fun Factor: 8.5/10

Acting: 9.5/10

Characters: 8.5/10

Story: 9.5/10

Quality: 9.5/10

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Rated PG-13 for moderate violence and action, sexual content, disturbing themes and images, thematic elements

Released on December 10, 2021

Rachel Zegler as Maria

Ansel Elgort as Tony

Ariana DeBose as Anita

David Alvarez as Bernardo

Mike Faist as Riff

Rita Moreno as Valentina

Brian d'Arcy James as Officer Krupke

Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Shrank

Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino

Iris Menas as Anybodys


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