Review by Montgomery Loehlein December 17, 2021
West Side Story (Christian Movie Review)
Final Verdict: A fresh version of a classic story. Dancing, romance, catchy tunes, and tragedy, this film has it all. Spielberg proves himself again.
About The Film
I’m not a fan of musicals.
I don’t dislike all musicals, but the genre doesn’t typically excite me. I feel the same way about horror movies. I’ll go see a good one, but I’ll see it because it’s a good movie, not because of its genre. So, when I hear Steven Spielberg is making a new adaptation of West Side Story, I am interested because Spielberg is the greatest director of all time. I expect him to make a good film, even though I don’t love musicals, and he has never directed a musical before. All that being said, I am happy to report that I like this musical.
West Side Story (2021) is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name that was loosely based on Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. It was previously adapted for the screen in 1961. The 1961 version is considered a classic by many, and won ten Oscars in its day, including Best Picture. Today’s version takes place in the West Side slums of New York City circa 1957. A Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks) and a white gang (the Jets) fight over control of their condemned land. Meanwhile, a former Jet named Tony falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl named Maria. What further complicates this interracial relationship is that Maria’s brother Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks. Tensions rise, and rumbles go down in this story that takes place in just a 48-hour period. This film has dancing and joy, but in the end, you won’t forget that at its roots it is still a Shakespearian tragedy.
All the performers shine here. Rachel Zegler is a revelation as Maria. Ansel Elgort delivers as a leading man Tony. The supporting characters of Anita, Bernardo, and Riff all jump off the screen. The music feels timeless. The cinematography and costume design bring great artistry. If I was to pick out one flaw, I’d say it feels a bit long at 2h36m. All in all, this film is another masterpiece painted by a master artist.
On the Surface
Profanity: A few mild profanities (S—, B—d, D—k, etc). A couple F-word stand-ins but no actual F-word. A few religious profanities (g—d—). Some racial/ethnic slurs.
Sexuality: Some kissing. Sex is implied once. One female character dresses like a boy because she wants to be a part of the gang (she also insists once that she is “not a girl”).
Violence: Some bloody fistfights. Knives and a gun are also used but aren’t very bloody. We see a nail stuck in someone’s ear lobe. A woman is harassed by a group of men and a threat of rape is implied but they are interrupted.
Beneath the Surface
Engage the Film
An Eye for an Eye
The most interesting theme to look at in this story is the violent tendencies of its young men. The best example of this is in one of its songs Gee, Officer Krupke:
“Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
Ya gotta understand:
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us outta hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.”
And later in song, the boys, imitating a judge, sing:
“Officer Krupke, you’re really a square.
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs a analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologically disturbed!”
These opening lines begin to answer the complicated reasons behind why these boys are the way they are. Is it their parents’ fault? Is it society’s fault? Police? Are they bad to the core, or are they just sick? Even though there are no monocausal explanations for their actions, we can see that they are at least, in part, products of their environment. Boys with little hope or purpose decide to make their own purpose. The Jets become an identity. A family for the abandoned. They rally around their race so as to make the Puerto Ricans an enemy invader to their neighborhood.
Bernardo might not have the same issues that Riff and the Jets seem to have, but he still loves violence. He’s a proud boxer, and definite hot head. He hates the idea of a “gringo” marrying his sister. Riff, Bernardo, and their respective gangs are on a collision course. But Tony wants no part of it. He’s trying to move on. He’s found something better than violence—true love with Maria. Tony has a new purpose that Riff can’t understand. Bernardo won’t accept that Tony is different than the Jets. As much as Tony tries to get out of this fight, he can’t.
Fighting gives people a feeling of purpose. It takes us out of the mundane of modern life. We sometimes return to our tribal nature because we want something to fight for. But Christ gives us another way, and another purpose. Our hearts ought not “devise violence” (Prov 24:2). Our fight is not with “flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12). Christ calls you to put “away your sword” (Matt 26:52). I think West Side Story is a good example of what a lack of compassion and love for neighbor can lead to.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9