Review Round-Up: Critics Ecstatic about 'West Side Story'

Thursday December 2, 2021

David Alvarez as Bernardo in "West Side Story"
David Alvarez as Bernardo in "West Side Story"  (Source:IMDb)

The delayed, highly anticipated remake of "West Side Story," directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted by Tony Kushner, hits screens next week. But it already received considerable buzz when it previewed earlier this week. Now the critics have weighed in and the initial reviews are ecstatic. It has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of Thursday morning. This will likely put it in the top tier of films for this year's Best Picture Oscar.

In Variety, Owen Gleiberman wrote: "Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' has a brash effervescence. You can feel the joy he got out of making it, and the kick is infectious... There are scenes in Spielberg's version that will melt you, scenes that will make your pulse race, and scenes where you simply sit back and revel in the big-spirited grandeur of it all."

In Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson discussed the challenge that filmmakers had in the remake. "So he and Kushner had to take the trickier course: paying homage to the show's legacy while giving it a new shine, gently and shrewdly tweaking rather than overhauling. To, I must admit, my great surprise, they pretty much pull it off, creating a 'West Side Story' for new generations to thrill to, and giving purists only a few reasons to haughtily sniff in its direction..."

"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."

In IndieWire, David Ehrlich was a bit more measured: "The message is clear: This is the 'West Side Story' you know and love, only revitalized by a distance that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins never got to have from it... Spielberg and Kushner adding dimension upon dimension to an American classic until its tragedy steeps into silence. It's a wonderful musical, and an unabashed Steven Spielberg movie. And the moments in which it most comfortably allows itself to be both of those things at once leave you convinced that some harmonies are worth waiting for, even if it seems like they've been always been around the corner and whistling down the river."

London's The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw raved in a five-star review, "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... '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."

In her A- review in Entertainment Weekly, Leah Greenblatt wrote, "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."

Of the 37 reviews posted on Thursday morning on Rotten Tomatoes, only three were negative. Writing in The Independent, Clarisse Loughrey gave the film three stars out of five, praising the film's technical prowess, while wondering, "What feels like an unanswerable question: how can a film look this good, feel so moving, and still come up lacking?"

And at Little White Lies, David Jenkins faulted Spielberg's busy direction. "The camera, too, manically dances and swishes around the actors, the sharp cuts slicing through the action in an overzealous attempt to stake the film's claim as a piece of bells 'n' whistles cinema rather than filmed theatre. Initially the razzle dazzle does enough to hold the interest, but after a while it comes across as empty showmanship, technique at the expense of focus..."

"Yet it's a strange thing to say about one of the world's foremost forgers of cinematic imagery and sveltely assured storytelling, but on this evidence, Spielberg has no feel for musicals. He appears resistant to just showing the actors performing — placing bodies in the frame and painting with people. There's a cloying need to make himself, the director, feel at every moment. The individual performances are all fine, but there's no dynamism and connectivity.