‘West Side Story’ Movie Review: Steven Spielberg’s Adaptation Has Dazzling Footwork, but Lacks Core Chemistry

West Side Story is one of the most beloved musicals of all time. The 1961 film adaptation earned 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. However, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg tries his hand on a second feature film adaptation, although it doesn’t reach the heights of the previous film. West Side Story once again proves Spielberg’s marvelous direction, but it lacks the emotional core that makes the 1961 version so successful.

What is the story behind ‘West Side Story?’

'West Side Story' movie review Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo dancing in the street
L-R: Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo | Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

West Side Story is set in the Upper West Side of New York during the mid-1950s. A white gang known as the Jets and a Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks are constantly at each other’s throats. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is a former member of the Jets, but his best friend, Riff (Mike Faist) tempts to draw him back into it. Tony meets and falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), who is the younger sister of the Sharks’ boss Bernardo (David Alvarez).

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet directly inspired West Side Story. Racial divides intensify as Tony and Maria’s romance becomes common knowledge. The gangs agree upon a duel to settle it, but the new happy couple wants to see the two communities find peace. They must discover a way to stop the fight before it’s too late.

‘West Side Story’ remains socially relevant

Spielberg directs Tony Kushner’s screenplay, which brings West Side Story to the silver screen with a whole new adaptation. However, it successfully maintains the themes of racism and classism. Skin color, language, and culture are just some of the elements that separate the Jets and the Sharks, which bring the tension to a boiling point. The words “go back where you came from” still cut deep, even with the difference in the time period. Meanwhile, gentrification is a threat that looms over the neighborhood.

West Side Story has a lot to say about the American Dream through its characters, themes, and musical lyrics. They regularly refer to the concept of home. All of the characters struggle to identify the real meaning of home, with the song “America” sitting front and center in this discussion. A gun’s place in the story remains to be a motif that says a thousand words about both the powers and the dangers that hang in the country of opportunity.

Riff and Bernardo are constantly at odds with each other about territory. This concept is defined in a physical nature regarding the streets and the women on both sides of the conflict, but also in the form of identity and gender. The two gangs seek to claim the streets as their own and seek to protect the women in their groups. Some characters are still discovering their identity in the context of this city, while others navigate more personal gendered journeys. However, these narratives are more peripheral.

Steven Spielberg’s excellent direction can’t save the core romance

'West Side Story' movie review Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria holding hands under the bleachers
L-R: Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria | Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

West Side Story further emphasizes Spielberg’s mastery of his craft. The film has such musicality in the way that it’s shot, which gives this adaption a unique style. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography sports a blue-ish grey palette that keeps bright colors to a minimum. The lighting emphasizes emotion, although the picture could do with fewer lens flares. Meanwhile, Adam Stockhausen’s production design combines the feeling of a Broadway musical with cinematic qualities.

The biggest misstep in West Side Story is Elgort’s casting. His performance reads as very mute. There’s little emotion, therefore there’s no reason to care much about his journey. Zegler turns in an excellent solo performance, although the chemistry between the two leads is non-existent. However, Alvarez, Rita Moreno, and Ariana DeBose turn in exceptional performances. The supporting characters totally steal the spotlight from the leads, making it groan-worthy when the story returns back to Tony and Maria.

West Side Story remains remarkably relevant in today’s society, as its themes run even deeper in the present day. However, the world didn’t necessarily need another adaptation after the well-executed 1961 version. Spielberg brings his brilliant visual prowess, but Elgort is severely miscast. As a result, the movie’s core is gutted. However, when the film moves to its supporting characters, it shines.

West Side Story dances into theaters starting Dec. 10.

RELATED: How ‘West Side Story’ Fulfilled a Lifelong Promise Steven Spielberg Made to Himself