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Review: Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ hits all the right notes

Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is the second film adaption of the beloved Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical about two teens from different ethnic backgrounds who fall in love in 1950s New York City.

Theater marquee reading "West Side Story" in neon
A marquee outside The Broadway Theatre in Manhattan, New York, displays "West Side Story" in 2020.
Contributed / Alex Simpson via Unsplash.com

BAXTER — Steven Spielberg’s love for the legendary musical “West Side Story” is larger than life.

The acclaimed director remade the beloved tragic romance for the big screen, and his new film adaption is playing at movie theaters like the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” currently holds an impressive 92% approval rating among critics and an even better 94% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

The RottenTomatoes.com critics consensus reads: “Steven Spielberg's ‘West Side Story’ presents a new look at the classic musical that lives up to its beloved forebear — and in some respects might even surpass it.”

"West Side Story" (2021) movie poster
Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" is the second film adaptation of the hit Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical of the same name.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Like the 1961 motion picture of the same name that starred Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, Spielberg’s version is also a film adaptation of the hit 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which was inspired by William Shakespeare's famed play “Romeo and Juliet.”

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Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler play Tony and Maria in Spielberg’s remake, a pair of star-crossed lovers in 1957 New York City whose forbidden romance causes nothing but trouble for their respective families and friends.

Sparks between the two young lovers instantaneously fly when they lock eyes on each other at a high school dance and it’s a love at first sight that cannot be denied or dissuaded by those who care for Tony, a strikingly handsome Caucasian, and Maria, a beautiful Puerto Rican.

Complicating matters even more in addition to the apparent ethnic or cultural differences between the two is that their friends or family belong to or are affiliated with the warring Jets and Sharks — rival gangs vying for control of San Juan Hill on Manhattan's West Side.

If you go with him, no one will ever forgive you.
-- Anita

The teens Tony and Maria seem almost oblivious to the perils associated with their passionate romance and are obsessed with each other in their pursuit of young love.

"If you go with him, no one will ever forgive you," Anita tearfully tells Maria. Anita is the girlfriend of Bernardo, Maria’s headstrong brother who is the leader of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks.

The songs featured in “West Side Story” should be instantly familiar to even those who have not seen the Tony Award-winning stage production or the 1961 film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins; Robbins produced, directed and choreographed the Broadway production.

Spielberg pays homage to the 1961 movie by including 90-year-old Rita Moreno in his faithful and lovingly rendered version. Moreno, who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony, played a supporting role in the first film as Anita.

The 1961 motion picture , in fact, has been deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1997.

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It would take a director like Spielberg — whose credits include “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and many more — to have the chutzpah or clout to tackle the movie musical for today.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” was named one of the top 10 films of 2021 by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute, and received four nominations at the 79th Golden Globe Awards — winning three, including Best Picture — Musical/Comedy.

The 2021 feature film adaption by Spielberg is rated PG-13 and runs two hours and 30 minutes. But it includes the same popular songs such as “America” and “Tonight” that Broadway fans and moviegoers should come to expect with a jazz-infused, Latin-inspired soundtrack.

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The original 1957 Broadway production marked Stephen Sondheim's Broadway debut and ran for more than 700 performances before going on tour. The stage production was nominated for six Tony Awards, including best musical, in 1958.

A legend in musical theater, Sondheim's best-known works include “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Into the Woods,” just to name a few. He passed away in November of last year.

For the Broadway musical “West Side Story,” the Grammy and Oscar-winning composer teamed up with the legendary Leonard Bernstein, whose accolades include seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards and 16 Grammy Awards.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bdfilmforum.

Frank Lee
Frank Lee

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I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write articles for the Wadena Pioneer Journal weekly newspaper owned by Forum Communications Co.
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