The Steven Spielberg-helmed West Side Story does a lot right for a movie musical adaptation. The film’s young cast feels very well-placed for the roles, and it’s refreshing to see a movie musical ensemble not simply filled with famous names for publicity. There are also flashes of brilliance in some of Spielberg’s stagings of the musical’s best songs but overall the film could have been done with more flair.

If you like old-school Broadway even a little bit, then you probably already love West Side Story, but there’s a lot to appreciate here. The songs here, with original lyrics and compositions by musical greats Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, are just as iconic now as they were then. Songs range from high-energy dance songs to compelling love ballads, to jazzy and playful numbers that you’ll be humming in the days after hearing. If this era of music is completely not your thing, this film’s take won’t convince you, but it goes to show you how powerful these songs still are completely unchanged.

This film’s Maria, Rachel Zegler, is a vocal standout with some incredible renditions of classic songs like “I Feel Pretty.” Her co-star Ansel Elgort definitely brings the vocal chops and dance moves for his part as Tony, though he sticks out in the cast as looking a little bit more like he checks Twitter twice a day. Their one-on-one chemistry doesn’t 100% hit home in their duet scenes, but you somehow buy their relationship more when the two are crooning about their love by themselves.

The most natural performer of the cast in both songs and regular scenes was Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita. She was extremely magnetic and held attention even with less screentime as the main stars, and it is immediately clear why DeBose is in awards conversations from the part. Another stellar supporting performance came from Mike Faist, who played Tony’s friend Riff. Faist’s physicality was a perfect dose of stagey acting without leaning too cartoony.

Some of Spielberg’s takes of West Side Story’s best songs are absolutely incredible, too. A standout is Tony and Riff performing a duet of “Cool,” on a dock. Elgort and Faist chase each other around and wrestle over a prop gun with some incredible dance choreography worked in.

There are some aspects that hold this back from being a compelling movie as well as an iconic musical, though. Since the cast was stellar with handling singing and dancing scenes and communicating emotions through blocking and choreography, most of the dialogue scenes felt much stiffer in comparison. The attempts to bring this movie into more modern conversations were also shallow at best and could have been explored much further.

The scriptwriting did the scenes between songs very few favors, with dialogue mostly serving to exhaustively communicate the film’s established themes and conflicts over and over. Brian d’Arcy James and Corey Stoll are wasted as Officer Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank respectively. The development of these cop characters could have been an element that really resonated with current debates about police in America, but the movie definitely isn’t having that conversation aside from a few throwaway lines about police racism.


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And even though the film is already north of two hours, the Puerto Rican characters also could have been developed more than they were. Danny Alvarez‘s Bernardo particularly sticks out as thinly characterized even compared to minor Jets characters that get their own song with “Officer Krupke.” He is basically there to drive territorial conflicts along with Riff, but we don’t see nearly as many sympathetic sides to him as we do his Jets counterpart.

The filmmakers might have given themselves slightly too much credit for swapping the role of Doc to his Puerto Rican widow Valentina played by Rita Moreno. It’s an awesome full-circle moment to see Moreno, who played Anita in the original film adaptation, step into a mentor role in this new film. It still shouldn’t have come at the expense of more developed young Puerto Rican characters, though.

In general, the 2021 West Side Story delivers exactly what you would expect. The songs are still incredible, and the cast performs them exceptionally well. But there’s an unmistakable sense that we’ve all been here before. Spielberg’s adaptation could have improved with more surprises and mixups on the extremely-trodden formula for existing fans.

Sure, a few songs were moved around from their original places, but it did little to affect the actual flow of the story. A jump in the period, a more major cast change, or a bigger overhaul of that nature could have brought a refreshing take on the story. This film is definitely a case of adhering slightly too close to the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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