West Side Story Takes You “Somewhere” Special


Twentieth Century Studios

Despite having low box-office numbers, West Side Story has been considered a critical success, winning numerous accolades from various associations like the Golden Globes.

On December 10, 2021, the movie musical, West Side Story, was released in theaters only. Directed by Steven Spielberg, West Side Story is an adaptation of the highly acclaimed Broadway play and 1961 movie. The movie stars Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ansel Elgort as Tony, and Ariana Debose as Anita.

West Side Story is an adaptation of the Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York. The Puerto Rican Sharks and the European Jets are two rival gangs fighting over the control of their block. In spite of this rivalry, Maria, the Shark leader Bernardo’s sister, and Tony, a Jet, fall deeply in love. Over the course of the movie, Maria and Tony attempt to navigate their love through the growing hatred between the gangs.

The movie’s most notable aspect was the vivid cinematography and set design. The sets represent the difficult lives of the lower class in New York, but kept a vibrant and striking appearance in each of the scenes. The bold reds, yellows, and blues in the costume design of the Sharks makes their scenes a visual delight. Spielberg also frequently uses lighting as a conveyor of the mood in the scenes. The rumble between the Jets and the Sharks is dark and ominous and uses shadows and darker lighting, while the dance breaks for lively songs like “America” are bright and use muted lighting to convey warmth even within the poorer areas of the neighborhood. 

The plot and musical direction of Spielberg’s adaptation is quite faithful to the original, but there are few alterations which make it fresh. The focus on the social situation of the time helps develop the characters, especially the Puerto Rican Sharks. Characters like Anita come to America to start a new life but lose their hopes once they realize that the American Dream does not favor people like them. The focus on the American Dream gives more of a motivation as to why the Sharks fight over their land, as it is all they have, and it represents their dream for starting over. The Sharks are also portrayed by an entirely Latino cast, which is a definite improvement in representation from the predominantly white cast of the 1961 movie.

The cast, despite featuring mainly debut actors, is one of the highlights of the movie. Zegler is the perfect fit for Maria; her youthfulness, optimism, and charming voice accentuates her bashful yet confident character. Debose’s confidence and charisma in her scenes, especially while executing the dance breaks, makes her stand out as a force in the movie. Additionally, Riff, Tony’s best friend played by Mike Faist, is developed more through Faist’s emotional delivery and the choreography, which guides the viewer through the emotions he feels in the scene.

Despite the wonderful execution of this adaptation, some of Spielberg’s decisions keep it from reaching higher levels. Ansel Elgort in particular does not live up to past portrayals of the character Tony. His delivery and overall demeanor lacks the charisma and warmth that Tony is meant to have, making the chemistry between Maria and Tony almost non-existent. This may have been due to the few allegations against Elgort of assault, which were uncovered while filming. While it is an authentic decision, most of the Sharks’ dialogue is in Spanish without any subtitles, which might make it harder for some to catch up on the plot progression. There are some context clues which are offered, but not nearly enough to comprehensively understand the dialogue.

Despite the number of adaptations and remakes released every month, West Side Story stands out as an ambitious and creative effort to add on the pre-existing movie. With bright and purposeful cinematography, a multi-talented cast, and much needed updates, Spielberg manages to bring the time-tested tale back to life in a modern light.