Critics are falling head over heels for Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” which some are calling the director’s finest film in decades and, as of press time, has a stellar 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“‘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,” Robbie Collins of The Telegraph writes. “The result is miraculous: a film which fuses the colour and euphoria of a Golden Age movie musical with the teeming, dirty-fingernailed grandeur of a classic American immigrant epic.”
Many critics wondered about the need to make a remake of a film like the original 1961 “West Side Story” that already still feels so urgent, but nearly all were won over, with Stephanie Zacharek of TIME magazine saying she was initially a doubter, only to see Spielberg’s new film as “West Side Story” “reborn” rather than remade.
The film has some welcome changes and updates, most notably with the casting of newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita. Zacharek in particular praised Zegler as “graceful and lovely, guileless in all the right ways but also capable of shifting her pitch to rage and fury when necessary.”
The film was also praised for its sheer beauty by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who litters the Manhattan streets with dreamy, otherworldly lens flares. And many admired the structural choices made by screenwriter Tony Kushner, who jumbles some of the musical’s songs in order to give them a new context.
Though if there were detractors, there were not raves for Ansel Elgort as Tony, who even the critics who loved the film felt was miscast or is “stiff.”
“The perpetrator is Ansel Elgort, cast in the leading role of Tony, and he’s absolutely dull as toast — his delivery is flat, his tics and affectations are too contemporary, his expressions are wooden, and he suffers from a total lack of credibility. He’s never not just an actor reciting his lines and doing so poorly,” Jason Bailey writes in The Playlist.
See some more snippets of reviews below. “West Side Story” opens only in theaters on December 10.
Robbie Collins, The Telegraph
“‘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.”
Jason Bailey, The Playlist
How badly can a single performance wreck an entire film? This is the unfortunate question prompted by Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of “West Side Story,” a dazzling and energetic movie musical that features, at its center, a performance with all the charisma of a bump on a log. The perpetrator is Ansel Elgort, cast in the leading role of Tony, and he’s absolutely dull as toast — his delivery is flat, his tics and affectations are too contemporary, his expressions are wooden, and he suffers from a total lack of credibility. He’s never not just an actor reciting his lines and doing so poorly.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair
Elgort’s wrongness and some of the errant song rearranging (“Cool” has been moved up in the timeline and given to Tony, which I don’t love) are minor quibbles about what is mostly a rousing success. The West Side Story movies old and new ought to exist in harmony with one another, each offering their own pleasures and problems, their own heart-swelling, sorrowful depictions of young love cut terribly short. Spielberg and Kushner have done justice to what Bernstein, Robbins, and the quite recently late Stephen Sondheim made all those years ago—not subverting its enduring value, but rather, with fire and grace, doing so much to earn it.
Stephanie Zacharek, TIME
“West Side Story”—shot by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski—is possibly the most gorgeous-looking film of the year. There are eight million lens flares in the naked city, and a good half of them are in West Side Story. These strange flashes of light—sometimes appearing as stars, other times as flat UFO-style invaders—show up indoors and out, in dance sequences and intimate love scenes. Are these luminous slashes un-erased mistakes, or are they purely intentional? There’s no need to know, or to care. Oddly enchanting and otherworldly, their presence marks this West Side Story as a modern fairytale, a work of grave beauty set in a time, and in a New York, long gone. This is movie as mirage. You won’t believe it until you see it, and maybe not even then.
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, is a real find, combining a delicate look with a fierce resolve and a gorgeous, pinging soprano voice. Elgort, as Tony, is not the singer that Zegler is, but his voice is in the right register, and he makes up for what he lacks with a deep-revolving performance. The dance scenes spill out into the street and are glorious with music and color — and with that magical quality that Spielberg has of cutting straight to the emotion.
Moira McDonald, Seattle Times
It’s a thoughtful and interesting screenplay, though Kushner occasionally makes his subtext too obvious (these characters make a lot of statements); if you know the original “West Side Story” pretty well, watching this one is fascinating, like getting reacquainted with an old friend who now looks quite different. Likewise, Peck’s choreography retains the spirit of Robbins’ creativity — how could it not? — while finding new, fresh movement. These dances feel massive — the Dance at the Gym is a volcano of whirling skirts; “America” spills out into the streets — and watching them on a big screen is glorious; you feel breathless as they end, caught up in the exuberance of the movement.
Leah Greenblatt, EW
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.
Clarisse Loughrey, The Independent
There was never any doubt that Spielberg would be able to direct a handsome looking musical. Justin Peck’s choreography recognises that there is no “West Side Story” without the finger snaps and balletic sweeps, but still finds its very own rhythm, captured by Spielberg’s camera with an elegant dynamism. The director’s go-to cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński, once again uses light and shadow to stunning effect. Single shots and moments do, in fact, surpass what the 1961 film achieved – there’s one particularly gorgeous image of Riff’s face, shot just-so so that the light highlights a small scar on his cheekbone. Is this from some past, unseen act of violence? All those technical triumphs only complicate what feels like an unanswerable question: how can a film look this good, feel so moving, and still come up lacking?