Movie Review: ‘West Side Story’ (2021)

I have the movie (in three different packaging iterations), the making-of book, and the soundtrack album. (Photo by the author)

West Side Story (2021)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Tony Kushner

Based on: The Broadway musical West Side Story, conceived, choreographed, and directed by Jerome Robbins. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Produced for the stage by Robert L. Griffith and Harold Prince. West Side Story itself is based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.)

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andres Rivera

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Spielberg Takes on a Timeless Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers

[Tony and Maria meet for the first time]

Maria Vasquez: I’ve never seen you before. You’re not Puerto Rican.

Tony: Is that OK?

[later]

Anita: [to Tony] Do you want to start World War III?

On December 10, 2021, 20th Century Studios,[1]  Amblin Entertainment, and TSG Entertainment, in conjunction with Walt Disney Studrios Motion Pictures, wide-released West Side Story, a musical romantic drama directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from the original 1957 stage version by Tony Award-winning dramatist and screenwriter Tony Kushner.

Spielberg’s West Side Story is the second film adaptation of the acclaimed and oft revived Broadway musical, conceived in the late 1940s by the legendary choreographer and stage director Jerome Robbins, who envisioned it as a modern-day take on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with two teenage gangs – the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican “Sharks” – standing in for the Bard’s feuding Capulets and Montagues, and 1950s Manhattan’s West Side in the stead of Elizabethan era Verona.

STEVEN SPIELBERG (director/producer): I’ve never directed a film musical, though there are musical numbers in some of my films – for example, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or in a comedy like 1941….

Opening Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with a musical number was George Lucas’s idea. He said, “Hey, Steven, you always say you want to shoot musicals. You’re a frustrated musical director!” So we put together this crazy number based on Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” and Danny Daniels choreographed it.” – West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film

(C) 2022 20th Century Studios via Target

For three-time Academy Award winner Spielberg, West Side Story was an obvious labor of love; he fell in love with the original Tony Award-winning stage production in the late 1950s after his parents, Arnold and Leah Spielberg, brought the original Broadway cast recording home – the first non-classical music album added to the Spielbergs’ music collection. The budding filmmaker listened to the vinyl record countless times, and when the Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise film adaptation hit theaters in 1961, the future director of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan saw it multiple times, never imagining that he would end up directing his own version of West Side Story in his early 70s.

A Pox on Both Your Gangs!

Lieutenant Schrank: Most of the white guys who grew up in this slum climbed their way out of it. Irish, Italian, Jews: nowadays their descendants live in nice houses and drive nice cars and date nice girls you’d want to marry. Your dads or your granddads stayed put, drinking and knocking up some local piece who gave birth to you: The last of the Can’t-Make-It Caucasians.

As in the original 1957 stage production and the 1961 film version, Spielberg’s West Side Story is set in 1957 on Manhattan’s West Side. From the stark opening shot – we see a landscape of ruined buildings that looks more like Berlin in 1945 than New York City in the Age of Eisenhower – we can see the setting for the conflict between the bitter, resentful “American” Jets and the proud and equally pugnacious Puerto Rican “Sharks.

Here, Spielberg shows us the reason why both gangs are locked in a cycle of mutual distrust, tribalism, and that eternal bane of humanity, bigotry. The city of New York has chosen the section of Manhattan’s West Side between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues as the site of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts complex, which was founded by John D. Rockefeller and had been an ongoing project – involving the razing of existing low-income housing and apartment buildings – for two years.

The conflict between the Jets and the Sharks reflects the still ongoing divide between “white” America and its ambivalent attitudes toward immigrants and the ambitions of “alien” newcomers, many of who come from Spanish-speaking countries in South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. In West Side Story, the conflict is also a quasi-civil war, since the immigrants in this case are U.S. citizens born in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Following the template created by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner don’t reinvent the wheel. The story is still a story of two teenagers – the Polish American Anton, aka “Tony” (Anson Elgort) and the Puerto Rican Maria Vazquez (Rachel Zegler) – who fall in love amidst the rivalry between the Jets (which Tony once led before a stint in prison) and the Sharks, whose leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) happens to be Maria’s older brother.

From l-r: Best Buy-exclusive steelbook; basic 4K UHD/2K HD Blu-ray; Target-exclusive set. Photo by the author

As relevant today as when it first debuted on Broadway, West Side Story has been reimagined by Spielberg, Kushner, and their cast of young stars, including Ansel Elgort (Tony), Rachel Zegler (María), Ariana DeBose (Anita), and David Alvarez (Bernardo), fully embracing historical accuracy in its vibrant depiction of mid-1950s New York City and the forbid­den love of the teenagers caught between familial allegiances and passion.  – from the back cover blurb, West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film

My Take

(C) 2022 20th Century Studios via Target

I have a long history with West Side Story. I first heard instrumental arrangements of two of its songs (Tonight and Somewhere) on Miami’s “easy listening” station WLYF (101.5 on the FM dial) when we lived in the house at Coral Estates Park and fell in love with the melodies of both. I couldn’t have been older than 10 or 11, and I would not see any version of West Side Story until I was in my late teens, but the music of Leonard Bernstein gave me the feels.

Later, when I was a high school sophomore at South Miami Senior High School, I joined the men’s ensemble (aka “the Boys’ Chorus”) and we sang – in character and in costume – the darkly humorous and cynical number Gee, Officer Krupke at the 1981 Spring Concert, dubbed “Let Us Entertain You” due to its mostly-Broadway program.

I think – my memory is a bit fuzzy on this point – that I saw the Robbins-Wise version of West Side Story on television a few years after that. And because I’m a rank sentimentalist and a fan of songs with great melodies and witty lyrics, I love the first film adaptation even though some sequences look too “stagy” and take me out of the story, many of the characters’ singing voices are not those of the actors that play them, and – the biggest flaw of all – non-Hispanic actors such as George Chakiris (Bernardo) and Natalie Wood (Maria) playing the two major Puerto Rican characters in West Side Story.

For all that, I am not so narrow in my thinking that I would not get that version of West Side Story on home media. When VHS videotape was the dominant format, I bought the MGM Home Video release as a Christmas present for my mom in the 1990s. When DVD was king, I replaced the videocassette – which could not be played anyway because my half-sister grabbed Mom’s VCR to replace her own after it broke down in the early 2000s instead of going to a Best Buy or a Circuit City store – with the Special Collector’s two-disc set. And even though I inherited that box set after Mom’s death in July 2015. I bought the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray in anticipation of watching Spielberg’s reimagined version.

As I’ve written in various posts related to the new version of West Side Story, I wanted – badly – to see it in theaters as soon as I learned about it back in 2019. Back then, The Walt Disney Company did not yet own 20th Century Fox, and it was as a Fox film that West Side Story began production – with Spielberg at the helm – back in 2017. And considering how much the story of Tony, Maria, Bernardo, Anita, Riff, Krupke, and all the rest means to me, I was crushed when (a) the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the studio to postpone its release from December 2020 to December 2021, and (b) the Caregiver’s relationship with her late boyfriend precluded going to see it in theaters when West Side Story was finally released.

As a fan of both West Side Story and Steven Spielberg, I do not pretend to be objective about this movie. I knew that I was going to like it as soon as I saw the trailer; the teenage characters – especially Tony, Maria, Riff, and Anita – look like, well, teenagers and not college graduates pretending to be teenagers.[2]

And even though the 2021 version West Side Story was mostly shot on a Brooklyn area studio lot, the movie looked as though it had been filmed in New York City in the 1950s. The cars, the storefronts, the billboards, and the rough-looking tenement buildings where most of the characters live all look like Spielberg and his crew created a time machine and transported us back to the era of hula hoops, poodle skirts, slum clearing projects, McCarthyism, and early Cold War America.

Riff: You know, I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like, and they don’t like me, and you know what’s left out of all of that? The Jets.

As I said earlier, Spielberg and Kushner do not radically change the basic recipe that turned the 1957 Broadway show into a timeless classic. It does not move the story forward into the 21st Century, nor did they change the basic plot to give West Side Story a Spielbergian ending where tragedy is averted and everyone stares at the sky in wonder as Tony and Maria fly into the starry night skies over Manhattan in an alien spaceship.

There are, of course, a few new twists in this version of West Side Story. Some, like the inclusion of the Sharks’ version of the Puerto Rican anthem La Borinqueña as a counterweight to the traditional Jet Song that used to be the show’s first sung number, balances the narrative so it’s not a musical dominated by the American characters’ viewpoint. And lyricist Stephen Sondheim – who died three days before the film had its World Premiere at the Lincoln Center on November 29, 2021 – got a chance to adjust some song lyrics – mainly in the number America – that he felt were not as good as they should have been.

Perhaps more radically, the New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck was brought on board as the film’s choreographer and created a new, less stylized set of dances that made the movie look gritty and realistic while still existing as a musical. Purists – many of whom opined that the 2021 film was not needed anyway – were not thrilled that Peck was not sticking to the original Robbins choreography, but I think that the new film needed it.

Don’t get me wrong. For its time, the 1961 West Side Story was adequately done and reflected the style and intent of the original 1957 stage version, even though Stephen Sondheim had to change some of the lyrics to some of the song for the Robbins-Wise production. (Some of the changes, like making America a co-ed song rather than keep it as an all-girls number, were ones that Sondheim wanted to make for the stage version; others, such as minor revisions to The Jets Song, were made to avoid offending the viewers of the time.)

By the same token, as brilliant a choreographer as Jerome Robbins was, the ballet-like dancing in scenes such as The Prologue and The Rumble look out of place, too stylized, and are the target of parodies in pop culture. I love the music and the lyrics, but I almost always cringe when I watch the ’61 West Side Story and see those fight scenes with their overly stylized ballet leaps and bounds.

In the 21st Century version of West Side Story, the dancing and musical numbers are still there, but they look more grounded in terms of the reality being depicted here. In the fight sequences, we believe that the Jets and Sharks are fighting for their ever-shrinking piece of Manhattan’s West Side. They’re still dancing, but the choreography portrays the aggressiveness, the deadly intent, and the tragedy of the gang warfare far better than Robbins’ more artistic interpretation.

TONY KUSHNER (screenwriter executive producer): Steven is an artist, first and foremost. Everything he makes comes from a deeply personal place; there’s great heart in his work, along with the technical brilliance; there’s an enormous imagination, curiosity about other people’s lives, and an abiding passion for democracy and justice. And he knows what artists know: that he needs to set himself new challenges with every film; he’s always eager to try something new, something difficult, something he’s never done before, something that scares him. – West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film

To his credit, Spielberg loves all of West Side Story’s incarnations, including the 1957 original stage show and the 1961 film. He plays many tributes to both, including setting his film squarely in 1957 (the year the show opened at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway) and casting some of the actors from the 1961 film either in blink-and-you-miss-them cameos (Harvey Evans, David Bean, and Bert Michaels, all who portrayed Jets gang members in the first film, appear as extras in this one) or, in Rita Moreno’s case, a new character in place of another. Moreno, who also served as one of the movie’s executive producers, plays Valentina, the widow of drugstore owner Doc, West Side Story’s Friar Laurence stand-in.

Although – sadly – West Side Story did not do well at the box office thanks to the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is a wonderful film. Tony Kushner insisted on being true to the original stage show, and even though some of the cast members were in their 20s when the film was made, they all did their own singing and dancing, and they all look “age appropriate.

Photo by the author

Produced and directed by legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner, WEST SIDE STORY tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love, set in 1957 New York City. A whole new generation can experience this reimagining of the beloved musical originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and original book by Arthur Laurents. Ansel Elgort stars as Tony, a former member of the Jets street gang, and Rachel Zegler stars as María, a young woman whose brother is the head of the Jets’ rival gang, the Sharks. When Tony and María meet, they fall in love, but those close to them discourage their union. As racial and territorial tensions mount between the competing gangs, events unfold that threaten the young lovers’ happiness. Along with its iconic songs, the film features breathtaking new choreography from Justin Peck, with the score helmed by renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel and arranged by composer and conductor David Newman. WEST SIDE STORY also stars Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Ana Isabelle, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, and Rita Moreno, who was featured in the 1961 film version, and who serves as an executive producer. The film’s creative team additionally includes Kushner as an executive producer, along with Daniel Lupi and Adam Somner, with Kevin McCollum and Kristie Macosko Krieger also producing. A timeless story of love and social unrest, the film also features stunning cinematography by Janusz Kaminski.from the 4K UHD/HD Blu-ray home media J-card

The exclusive-to-Best Buy steelbook of Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story.’ (C) 2022 20th Century Studios and Buena Vista Home Entertainment

West Side Story is now streaming on Disney+, and Buena Vista Home Entertainment released the movie on 4K UHD Blu-ray, 2K HD Blu-ray, DVD, and digital in March. I did not get the DVD, but I bought the other versions in three different packaging variations, as well as the “making-of” book and the original soundtrack album. I think this is one of Spielberg’s best recent productions, and I give it one of my most enthusiastic recommendations.


[1] The former 20th Century Fox, which has been a division of The Walt Disney Company since the beginning of 2020.

[2] In the 1961 film, the only major cast member who looks younger than 21 is Natalie Wood, and even there, her look is marred by the heavy makeup that the producers foisted on many of the “Latins” to make them look stereotypically brown-skinned.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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