What Critics Think of Spielberg's First Musical

'West Side Story' is getting strong reviews
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 10, 2021 11:50 AM CST

Steven Spielberg's first musical is a biggie: Coming 60 years after the first film version, Spielberg's iteration of the classic musical West Side Story alters a few elements, apparently for the better. Starring Rachel Zegler as Maria, the sister of the leader of Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, and Ansel Elgort as Tony, a former member of the rival all-white Jets gang, the film has a 93% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, some of whom say it tops the original. Four takes:

  • Better than the original: Bilge Ebiri is among critics arguing this iteration "surpasses" its troublesome predecessor. (Remember the brownface?) "Sadly, Elgort and Zegler have zero chemistry," but Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner "judiciously shift focus ... to the ruins among which their love blossoms," he writes at Vulture. The film touches "on the sociopolitical roots of working-class racism and violence." But "what really makes the movie is the exuberant kineticism of its musical set pieces, particularly the big, crowded ones."

  • 'Dazzling': It "reaffirms [West Side Story's] indelible appeal while making it feel bold, surprising and new," writes AO Scott at the New York Times. "It's a dazzling display of filmmaking craft that also feels raw, unsettled and alive." "The big comic and romantic numbers—'Tonight,' 'America' and, yes, 'I Feel Pretty'— burst with color and feeling," Scott adds, though Tony and Maria are "a bit bland." Luckily, that allows "magnetic performers" including David Alvarez (Sharks leader Bernardo), Ariana DeBose (Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita), and Mike Faist (Jets leader Riff) to shine.

  • 'A modern fairytale': "No one should be asking why Spielberg wanted to make a musical. The question is, why did he wait so long?" asks Stephanie Zacharek at Time. Beautifully choreographed, featuring a "graceful and lovely" presence in Zegler, with added boost from its secondary characters, the film "comes off not like a re-creation of an older work, but like a work summoned from the memory of a feeling," she writes. It's "a modern fairytale, a work of grave beauty" and "possibly the most gorgeous-looking film of the year."

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  • An act of 'reclamation': Gone are the toxic stereotypes and lip-syncing, and the result "feels thrilling, romantic, drenched in movement, life and color," writes Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post. She notes that in handing "the show's most beloved song— 'Somewhere'—to a different cast member than the original," Spielberg supplies "a magnificent, deeply moving moment—one that demonstrates that interpreting a flawed masterpiece need not always be an act of reinvention." Rather, "it can also be an act of long-deferred and much-deserved reclamation."
(More movie review stories.)

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