West Side Story (2021) is a musical film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the stage musical of the same name. West Side Story (2021) follows two divided gangs in New York City; the Jets, an all-white gang of delinquents who aim to claim the neighbourhood as their own; and the Sharks, an all-Puerto Rican gang who are firmly at war with the Jets. Between all this are two members of each side, Tony (Ansel Elgort) a former leader of the Jets gang and ex-con, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of the Sharks gang-leader. Two star-crossed lovers who both want an end to the violence but find themselves stuck between both worlds, in love. Sound familiar? That’s because this is an adaptation of a play based on Romeo and Juliet. Yep, that old tale again.
In normal times, a film adaptation of this play would not typically stir any murmurs from folk; the problem with this is that there’s already been a near perfect film adaptation of this play, it was done in 1961. Thus, it’s inevitable you’ll see comments from folks floating around like: “Really? They’re making this again? Why?“. When you think about it, can you really blame them? After all, we live in an age where adaptations, reboots, remakes, and endless sequels have reached what feels like their zenith, their critical mass (we all know it’s only just begun). It’s hard not to feel jaded by this constant rebranding of stories we’ve experienced many times before. So sure, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) is not exactly an original piece of storytelling… but guess what, it doesn’t matter, and I’ll tell you why.
The tale told in Spielberg’s film is the child of a near ancient lineage of retellings and re-adaptations of the same core story; a tale that spans back over 450 years. Originating from an Italian Novella in 1554, retold in 1567, readapted by Shakespere in 1597 into the widely known Romeo and Juliet. About 350 years later it was again adapted for stage into West Side Story (1957), and rewritten for cinema in 1961 under the same name, and finally… readapted for release in the year 2021. What a long and complicated history of re-adapations and re-imaginings. However, when you stop for a moment and observe the history behind the retellings of this old story something becomes clear. With each iteration, the story of Romeo and Juliet did not grow tired, stagnant, or repetitive; in fact, it kept evolving into something new; a new way to tell the age-old story of division and love, an ever-evolving narrative that is passed on from writer to writer to make their own. West Side Story (2021) is exactly that, a new and spectacular way of telling this story. It should be met with full embrace as all other retellings have been. You see, a narrative’s originality is not a wholly important metric of quality, what’s important is whether it expands or evolves the tale. There’s nothing wrong with a retelling or re-adaptation, so long as the material is elevated to new or different heights.
But with the 1961 film at the time being considered one of the greatest musicals ever made, how does one improve upon this supposed perfection? Well, to answer that, all you need is one name, Steven Spielberg. You see, the 1961 film may have been a perfect adaptation at the time; but times change, society evolves and therein lies an opportunity to deepen the narrative further, to execute the tale with the depth and technical wizardry that exists in the 2020’s. Spielberg goes all out, applying every conceivable skill he’s learnt throughout his time as a tenured director into this film. Almost every single frame is executed with the intentful precision of a master film-maker who really knows what he’s doing. The camera itself moves and breathes like its own character, pulling in and drifting out at all the right moments. Spielberg takes advantage of anything he can, technological or otherwise, all while maintaining a graceful foot firmly in the classical style of film-making. There is nothing but love and respect for the source material here, yet somehow, Spielberg evolves the narrative to fit the timely social themes of today, from racial division, gender, and cultural conflict. This film isn’t just adjusted for the times, it’s a better film now, period.
If the film-making mastery was not enough to gawk at, perhaps the talent scouting in this film is. West Side Story (2021) collects familiar and unfamiliar faces from all ends of the talent pool; purportedly sifting through 30,000 applicants simply to find the right lead actress. Eventually they landed on Rachel Zegler, a young woman who had really never acted professionally in her life. Her vocals in this film are so impactful it’s hard to believe she can sing, dance, and act her heart out at that calibre, it almost seems unfair. Lead actor Ansel Elgort plays alongside Zelger as the stand-in Romeo, fully immersing himself into the role and continuing to prove he’s a formidable talent. But in truth, if you’re looking for the true stars of the show, for me, it does not lie flatly in the star crossed lovers. The supporting roles are the ones that create the most waves in this adaptation, with a jaw-dropping performance by Ariana DeBose as Anita. She carves through potent emotional sequences, stunning dance numbers, and candid dialogue with ease. We also receive a pitch perfect casting of Riff played by Mike Faist who also elevates this character to someone you can empathise with, despite his faults. Almost every role in this film is quite frankly… perfect.
It is truly a tall task to accurately describe the absolute mastery of the film’s sheer spectacle. Comparable to the screenplay – the cinematography, art direction, musical set-pieces sweep you off your feet and absorb you completely into the movie. This may be Spielberg’s first musical but it feels as if he is right in his comfort zone here, conducting a masterful technical orchestra that elevates this musical to truly special heights. Seriously, I am not trying to be hyperbolic, Spielberg feels like a wizard here pulling off technical heights that I rarely ever see. Approaching with a formalist style, Spielberg perfectly understands the nature of musical set-pieces and crafts every inch of the frame with absolute precision. The lighting is quite simply… perfect. Featuring some of the most thoughtful and creative uses of lighting that I have seen on film – absorbing you in every moment and elevating the spectacle. The choreography is another extremely impressive feat that Spielberg accomplishes – starting with the casting of incredibly talented individuals, utilizing the meticulously crafted sets and allowing the camera to flow with the energy being produced. Seeing the marketing material for the film, I knew the audience was in for an impressive crafted film, but this?! Nothing prepared for the mastery on display.
The art direction is of the tallest order, it may just be the ultimate display of this visuals that I had seen all year. West Side Story spares no expense when it comes to its sets – particularly the prologue as the Jets and the Sharks go through several well-designed, highly detailed and timely sets that never appear again in the film. Each set is highly detailed and perfectly designed to support the Dolly and Crab shots. West Side Story perfectly encapsulates the 1950s era as it immerses us in the blue-collar neighbors and uses its immaculate set design to absorb its audience in its narrative. The film uses its musical pieces appropriately as it only seems to build upon its storytelling rather than dominate the film’s runtime. Further to this, the musical pieces are highly expressive which only provides more impact on the film’s emotional cues. Spielberg creates an almost perfect synergy between all parts of the technical filmmaking process, reaching results that are truly rare to bear witness.
West Side Story (2021) is like if you were to find every respective master in the film-industry and pool them together for one project. The result is pure cinema, pure film-making mastery. In my view, is this the best musical ever made? On a technical or film-making front, yes, perhaps. Is it my favorite musical ever made? Well, I’d need 5 years of thinking and a few drinks to answer that. It’s close.