West Side Story: The BRWC Review

West Side Story Synopsis: An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.

Steven Spielberg’s career exists on its own plateau of excellence, with few craftsmen equalling his output of storied cinematic staples. From the blockbuster thrills of Jurassic Park and Minority Report to the hard-hitting pathos behind Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, Speilberg continues to skillfully shift through genre sensibilities while still imbuing his trademark eye for sentimental magic. 

Spielberg’s latest cinematic challenge is reimagining the 1961 revered musical West Side Story. Based on Stephen Sondheim’s 1957 musical, both films tell a tale of bigotry and misunderstanding akin to classic Shakespear. As the impoverished white gang, the Jets, and the disenfranchised Latino gang, the Sharks, battle for control of their turf amidst continual gentrification, ex-Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) and sister of the Sharks’ leader Maria (Rachel Zegler) begin to fall in love. 

Anyone who has read Romeo and Juliet or seen the story adapted previously likely knows where the story goes from here. However, that innate familiarity miraculously disappears under Spielberg and company’s skilled cinematic touch. West Side Story reinvigorates its root with immaculate craftsmanship and a renewed sense of purpose, injecting a much-needed modern lens into the story’s timeless tale of civil and racial divide. 

Spielberg and his longtime Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski create a true feast for the senses behind the camera. The static imagery and traditional choreography of its predecessor exchange for a newfound visceral vitality – with each frame displaying impeccable detail and an effervescent color pallet. The new dances numbers also pop with more dynamic choreography. An emphasis on more expressive actions allows the characters to express their burdened sentiments without relying upon overly-expository dialogue. It could have been easy for the grander visual profile to feel like an example of style over substance, but the duo thankfully utilizes the techniques to heighten the emotional undertones of the narrative. 

In his adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ stageplay, Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner imbues his stamp of modern touches. The addition of Rita Moreno as the sage business owner Valentina offers a reflective lens to illustrate the unfortunate pattern of racial divide, while the decision to make Anybody a transgender character adds a thoughtful depiction of modern LGBTQ inequalities. Unlike several remakes, Kushner’s new touches serve as welcomed additions that intensify timely depictions of prejudice and unwarranted bigotry. 

While the film excels in most facets, the cast left me feeling oddly divided. Ariana DeBose expressively conveys Anita’s blend of lively joy and exasperated frustration with her broken environment. Mike Faist displays exuberance as the Jets’ wise-cracking leader with self-aware acceptance of his melancholic fate. Unfortunately, it’s the stars who fail to match the awards-worthy supporting players. Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are stiff in their dialogue deliveries and lack the passionate chemistry to sell the film’s star-crossed lovers. 

A few unremarkable performances can’t stop Speilberg from crafting his best feature in over a decade. West Side Story discovers dynamic new avenues to build upon its storied predecessors in an all-too-relevant musical tragedy. 

West Side Story is now playing in theaters.

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Matt is an American who has grown up for passion for film and its empathetic powers to tell unique stories (especially in the science fiction sphere). Some of his favorites include Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Goodfellas, Frances Ha and Moonlight.


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