West Side Story - movie 2021

West Side Story movie review round-up of Steven Spielberg’s new film musical

We don’t often review movies, despite a lot of musical stage-to-films getting made and released in recent years.

The Les Miserables movie was a biggie. And the last, weird 18 months has seen us watch a lot of our theatre on screens rather than live.

But the release of the new movie version of West Side Story on 10 December (in the UK and US), really does deserve our full attention. Not least because director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner seem to have done the impossible in creating a new movie version of West Side Story that both pays homage to the original 1960 Best Picture Oscar winning classic, and also moves the work forwards into a new era.

But also because, well, Stephen Sondheim has just died, and this is the first major piece of work of his to be released since his death.

And also, because it’s tipped to be one of the most awarded and acclaimed movies of 2021, and it’s a musical, so we are fully in for that!

Here’s the full marketing lowdown for you so you have all the facts at your fingertips: Directed by Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, “West Side Story” tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City.

This reimagining of the beloved musical stars Ansel Elgort (Tony); Rachel Zegler (María); Ariana DeBose (Anita); David Alvarez (Bernardo); Mike Faist (Riff); Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino); Ana Isabelle (Rosalía); Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank); Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke); and Rita Moreno (as Valentina, who owns the corner store in which Tony works). Moreno – one of only three artists to be honored with Academy, Emmy, GRAMMY, Tony and Peabody Awards – also serves as one of the film’s executive producers.

Bringing together the best of both Broadway and Hollywood, the film’s creative team includes Kushner, who also serves as an executive producer; Tony Award winner Justin Peck, who choreographed the musical numbers in the film; renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and GRAMMY Award winner Gustavo Dudamel, who helmed the recording of the iconic score; Academy Award-nominated composer and conductor David Newman (“Anastasia”), who arranged the score; Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), who supervised the cast on vocals; and Grammy-nominated music supervisor Matt Sullivan (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Chicago”), who served as executive music producer for the film.

The film is produced by Spielberg, Academy Award-nominated producer Kristie Macosko Krieger and Tony Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum. “West Side Story” has been adapted for the screen from the original 1957 Broadway show, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and concept, direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Needless-to-say the critics LOVE it, with a roaring round of five stars from UK and US press. Here’s our round-up, and we simply cannot wait!

Average Critics Rating

The Guardian

"Spielberg’s triumphantly hyperreal remake"

"Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story 2.0 is an ecstatic act of ancestor-worship: a vividly dreamed, cunningly modified and visually staggering revival. No one but Spielberg could have brought it off, creating a movie in which Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics blaze out with fierce new clarity. Spielberg retains María’s narcissistic I Feel Pretty, transplanted from the bridal workshop to a fancy department store where she’s working as a cleaner. This was the number whose Cowardian skittishness Sondheim himself had second thoughts about. But its confection is entirely palatable."

"[Ansel] Elgort and [Rachel] Zegler are a more real pair than Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in the original: but they have the same fundamental innocence and quaint pre-pop, pre-youth-culture 60s unworldliness. West Side Story is contrived, certainly, a hothouse flower of musical theatre, and Spielberg quite rightly doesn’t try hiding any of those stage origins. His mastery of technique is thrilling; I gave my heart to this poignant American fairytale of doomed love."

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
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The Telegraph

"Spielberg’s magnificent remake is his finest film in 20 years"

"The director's first musical feels as definitive as the previous screen adaptation and a timely testament to the genius of Stephen Sondheim"

"West Side Story is, I believe, Spielberg’s finest film in 20 years, and a new milestone in the career of one of our greatest living directors. A little less than a month before his 75th birthday, he has delivered a relentlessly dazzling, swoonily beautiful reworking of the 1957 Manhattan-set musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, which feels just as definitive and indestructible as the previous screen adaptation, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins."

"There’s no need for Spielberg and Kushner to tease out topicality here. Aspects of West Side Story feel as pertinent today as they must have done on its 1957 Broadway debut. But relevance is easy: timelessness is the real artistic feat. And Spielberg has magnificently pulled it off."

Robbie Collin, The Telegraph
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The Times

"Spielberg buoyantly reboots Bernstein’s classic"

"Typical Spielberg. Only he could manage to remake arguably the greatest musical of all without falling flat on his face. He meets Bernstein and Sondheim’s redux of Romeo and Juliet eye to eye, deftly shuffling a few numbers, adding a new character, dropping in a dash of political subtext, but otherwise approaching the spirit and the structure of the 1961 movie with unashamed reverence."

"The downside? It’s perhaps too reverential, too perfect. Steven Spielberg has shown us how you remake one of the great movie musicals. Yet I’m not sure if, at any point in this peerless homage, he manages to show why."

Kevin Maher, The Times
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Empire (UK)

"This is the first, full Steven Spielberg musical, and it seems he has been depriving himself and us all. From the opening shot, set to the eerie, lonesome whistle of ‘Act I: Prologue’, there’s barely a frame that isn’t beautiful or a beat that feels off. His camera sweeps over a demolition project and recalls Soy Cuba’s famous oner before descending a crane to ground level. In other words, Spielberg literally comes in like a wrecking ball, emphasising that the setting is a turf war for vanishing turf that both gangs are, ultimately, destined to lose."

"Heartfelt and heart-breaking, this feels like Spielberg has made an adaptation faithful to its roots but also, always, alive to the modern world."

Helen O'Hara, Empire (UK)
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Radio Times (UK)

"Spielberg’s spectacular remake almost matches the original"

"The new version of the classic musical falls just short of the first film – but it’s still a stunningly entertaining spectacle."

"Spielberg has been repeatedly insistent that this West Side Story is not a remake of that aforementioned version, but rather a new adaptation of the stage play, but it’s simply impossible not to compare the two films. And when put alongside each other, I don’t think this quite matches its predecessor in terms of pure emotional intensity, while it also lacks the technicolor magic which made that version such a visual treat. It does, however, come far closer to equalling it than it had any right to – and should definitely go down as a major hit."

Patrick Cremona, Radio Times (UK)
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The Evening Standard

"This glorious remake really sings...
This loving homage to the original film is a dazzling triumph"

"A brilliant cast, led by Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler, ensure the doomed romance between New Yorkers Tony and Maria is sweet, sweaty and searing. The Romeo and Juliet-inspired young couple are caught up in a racially-motivated turf war between two street gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Jets, led by Tony’s best-friend, self-styled “American”, Riff, (Mike Faist). I started crying at the end of a certain “rumble” and though the film’s stuffed with wit, I more or less didn’t stop."

"In case you didn’t know, the lyrics to all the songs were written by Stephen Sondheim. Damn, they’ve aged well (Gee Officer Krupke sounds particularly spry). Sondheim died last week - he may be gone, but he’s never seemed so current. A pied piper, he just keeps leading new generations into the dangerous but glorious world of snark.

And let’s give Shakespeare and Jerome Robbins (who conceived the original show) a pat on the back for generating such juicy and malleable myths. A big cheer for them all. Hooray! Or should I say, ¡Hurra!"

Charlotte O'Sullivan, The Evening Standard
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Washington Post (US)

"‘West Side Story’ is an urgent, utterly beautiful revival"

"The revelation in this production, however, is Mike Faist, who is not only a gifted singer and dancer, but plays Jets gang leader Riff with just the right mix of spiky resentment, hair-trigger anger and loose-limbed grace."

"Grace, too, informs what might be “West Side Story’s” most shattering scene, in which Spielberg gives the show’s most beloved song — “Somewhere” — to a different cast member than the original. Here, a ballad of longing and fragile possibility takes on a deeper dimension, one of hope but also of rueful what-might-have-been. It’s a magnificent, deeply moving moment — one that demonstrates that interpreting a flawed masterpiece need not always be an act of reinvention, or even just glorious resuscitation. It can also be an act of long-deferred and much-deserved reclamation."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post (US)
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"West Side Story is a beautifully-mounted, impressive, emotion-ridden and violent musical which, in its stark approach to a raging social problem and realism of unfoldment, may set a pattern for future musical presentations. Screen takes on a new dimension in this powerful and sometimes fascinating translation of the Broadway musical to the greater scope of motion pictures. The Robert Wise production, said to cost $6,000,000, should pile up handsome returns, first on a roadshow basis and later in general runs."

Whitney Williams, Variety
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Entertainment Weekly (US)

"Steven Spielberg pulls off the near-impossible in glowing remake"

"No matter how poignant or pointedly reworked, West Side Story is still high Hollywood fantasy: Where else outside of a sound stage can turf wars be resolved with a warbled melody and a kick-ball-change? But it feels like a rare achievement to even attempt to scale the unscalable and still, after more than half a century, be able to make it sing."

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly (US)
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TimeOut (US)

"How do you outdo a classic? Steven Spielberg’s live-wire new version of the timeless musical pulls it off in style"

"There’s a substrata of genius-level artists at work here: from Spielberg himself, who delivers his best film in nearly 20 years, to the late, great Stephen Sondheim (lyricist), Jerome Robbins (choreographer), Leonard Bernstein (composer) and William Shakespeare (the ideas guy) – and you can really feel it."

Phil De Semlyen, TimeOut (US)
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The New York Times (UK)

NYT Critic's Pick

"Spielberg’s version, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner that substantially revises Laurents’s book and new choreography by Justin Peck that pays shrewd tribute to Robbins’s genius, can’t be called flawless. The performances are uneven. The swooning romanticism of the central love story doesn’t always align with the roughness of the setting. The images occasionally swerve too bumpily from street-level naturalism to theatrical spectacle. The seams — joining past to present, comedy to tragedy, America to dreamland — sometimes show.

But those seams are part of what makes the movie so exciting. It’s a dazzling display of filmmaking craft that also feels raw, unsettled and alive. Rather than embalming a classic with homage or aggressively reinventing it, Spielberg, Kushner, Peck and their collaborators (including the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the production designer Adam Stockhausen, the editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn and the composers Jeanine Tesori and David Newman) have rediscovered its breathing, thrilling essence."

A.O. Scott, The New York Times (UK)
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