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West Side Story (2021) – Review – An Impressive Remake That Features Fun Performances and Inspired Cinematography

December 2, 2021

Quick Thoughts – Grade – B+ – The Steven Spielberg directed remake is at its best when Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose are able to shine. West Side Story is also beautiful to look at as cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has made almost every frame look visually interesting. It’s an ambitious remake that will be a contender come awards time. 

When it was announced that Steven Spielberg would be remaking West Side Story (which was adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, that was inspired by Romeo & Juliet), the 1961 classic that won 10 Academy Awards, many were left scratching their heads at the decision. Why would Spielberg want to remake a legitimate classic that is wildly beloved? The answer is, he loves West Side Story a lot, and wanted to bring an updated version of the musical that acts as a companion piece to the original. The end result is a successful movie that mixes up the musical performances, introduces some fresh faces, and isn’t some lazy remake that was made to put a few extra dollars into a studio’s pocket. It helps that Spielberg gets career best work out of Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds), and the screenplay by Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich, Angels in America) does a fine job restructuring the original film’s plot, while still making it familiar to West Side Story superfans. It’s a polished product, with vibrant costume design from Paul Tazewell (Hamilton, Harriet), and inspired production design by Adam Stockhausen (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bridge of Spies) that allows the actors to move freely during their song and dance numbers choreographed by Justin Peck. 

The story remains the same, and still features tragic lovers, dueling gangs, and epic musical numbers that feature lots of finger snapping. What’s changed is that Spielberg has 60 years of technological advances on his side, and he loads the films with sweeping crane and dolly shots that put the Panavision Panaflex Millennium camera to good use. The final product is beautiful to look at, and if you pay attention, you’ll notice the involved shots that must’ve required excessive blocking and marking to make sure the shadows and lighting work throughout long scenes involving lots of movement.

What makes the film really work are the performances from Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Anita), Rita Moreno (Valentina), and Mike Faist (Riff), whose performances feel wildly alive. The MVP of the movie is Ariana DeBose, who takes on the role of Anita (Moreno won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita), and fills it with life, passion and charm. The movie comes alive when these characters are on screen, and they are accompanied by a strong cast including Ansel Elgort, David Alzarez, Corey Stoll, and Josh Andrés Rivera, who all sing, dance and perform with aplomb. Spielberg has put together a likable cast, and it will be neat to see their careers takeoff in 2022. 

Final thoughts: West Side Story is a winning film that features alive and thrilling performances.

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