West Side Story is a dazzling new take on the classic musical

Film Grade: A

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Photo: The Walt Disney Company

This new adaptation of West Side Story is here to remind you how wonderful Steven Spielberg can be. This is not the same director who was comfortable substituting empty nostalgia for narrative drama in Ready Player One, but a master of his craft who makes the notoriously difficult art of the live action musical look simple in his first ever foray into the genre. The film is a shameless showcase of old-school theatricality that modernizes the classical musical in a way that feels like it’s brimming with energy, while simultaneously remaining faithful to the original.

The visual storytelling on display here is stunning throughout. The direction and cinematography are masterful, with every shot being constructed with such an obvious degree of expertise and experience that it completely immerses you in the world of the story. The kinetic blocking and dynamic lighting only do more to emphasize the subjects of the frame and enhance this tragic tale of doomed American romance.

The editing is excellent as well, as the filmmakers know precisely when to let the audience take in a gorgeous wide shot, when to cross-cut, and when to fade to black. The art design presents an expressionist vision of the west end that is simultaneously old-fashioned and vibrantly modern. The film moves at a breakneck pace, but still manages to deliver every major emotional beat of the story with grace and vivacity. All of the beloved songs are here too, brought to life by Justin Peck’s spirited new choreography. Rachel Zegler portrays Maria wonderfully in her feature film debut, Ansel Elgort is phenomenal as Tony in acting scenes, although his lack of musical theater experience is noticeable at times, and Ariana DeBose is as stunning as Anita in the dance numbers as she is in the dramatic scenes.

Despite being set in the 1950s, this world of racial unrest in which the police are so much harder on people of color than on white people is all too familiar. The character of Valentina is a marvelous addition too, both because of Rita Moreno’s spectacular performance and because of the new emotional dimension that she provides for the story. The extended sequences of characters speaking almost entirely in Spanish the film’s provide an additional layer of realism to the dialogue scenes between Puerto Rican characters while still getting the underlying emotions across for non-Spanish speakers. Despite these changes, the film doesn’t quite overcome some of the narrative issues that hamper the musical, as Tony and Maria are still the least interesting characters here. But, through its stunning showmanship, masterful direction, spectacular acting, and well-calculated inclusion of modern elements, it proves to be a genuinely more emotionally enthralling film that the beloved 1961 classic.