WEST SIDE STORY (2021)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot takes on another 2021 adaptation of an old favorite: West Side Story! Steven Spielberg took on the daunting task of putting his own spin on a beloved classic, and I’ll admit that despite his pedigree I was a little skeptical of how this remake of one of my all-time favorite movies would turn out. But thanks to another sharp collaboration between him and screenwriter Tony Kushner, it turned out to be one of my favorite films of the year, and I appreciated most of the changes made to the new film. While Spielberg’s West Side Story doesn’t have the saturated vibrance of the 1961 film, I still found myself awestruck with much of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, making it tough to narrow down favorites for this week’s best shot! So just to make things easier for myself, I ended up mostly highlighting shots outside of the big dance numbers since single images can’t fully capture the stunning movements (as Guillermo del Toro tweeted recently, the camera dances!); otherwise, I’d probably cheat it and pick the whole “America” sequence as my best shot.
A lot of the shots I really admired in West Side Story either involved shadows or reflections, which I feel helped heighten the Shakespearean roots of this musical; from Tony (Ansel Elgort) looking for his newfound love and Bernardo (David Alvarez) and Anita (Ariana DeBose) sharing an intimate moment, to the escalating tensions between the Sharks and the Jets and later María (Rachel Zegler) and Anita. I loved how Kaminski used these dramatic visual elements to express such passionate emotions from the characters, whether it was romance or rage.
This close-up shot of Riff (Mike Faist) and Bernardo facing off with Tony watching from between them was one of the shots that struck me when I first watched one of the trailers, and it still leaves quite an impact after seeing it within the context of West Side Story. The gang rivalry had already been heating up by the time the story begins, but of course, it all comes to a head when it gets much more personal between the two leaders, as Riff’s best friend and Bernardo’s sister fall in love upon meeting during “The Dance at the Gym”. This shot really exemplifies Tony as the driving source of the tragic turns the film takes; though he means no harm, he’s caught in the middle of the fight as he tries to pursue a better future with María.
For my HMWYBS pick, I ended up choosing from what might be my favorite change from this latest iteration of West Side Story, and it’s the way the first dance between María and Tony is staged. But before I get into my choice for the best shot, I wanted to highlight a few other shots that I was drawn to in this scene.
The original West Side Story has a beautiful, fantastical way of showing the “love at first sight” moment between the young lovers, as everyone around them blurs out of focus and the room goes dark as they meet across the gym (you can watch that scene here). The initial meeting in this new version has a bit more realism to it, as the two find themselves behind the bleachers while everyone dances on the open floor. But there’s still a sort of mystical element to this sequence, with the use of lens flares and the way the lights are tinged with pink and blue hues as if the couple is in their own world away from the pending violence. Among the many visual homages that Spielberg and Kaminski make to the original throughout this new film, this is a great shot that mirrors a memorable scene in the older movie while being something of its own.
Be sure to check out what others have chosen as their best shot from West Side Story here!