West Side Story (2021)
Steven Spielberg’s remake tops the original in a risky and captivating manner
I have to say, despite Steven Spielberg being behind the idea of remaking West Side Story (1961), I was reticently skeptical. Nevertheless, for one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, we must give him the benefit of the doubt. He has sought a challenge with an “oldie” musical, largely unknown cast, a genre in which he has never directed, and the racist elements of the original film. In the end, Spielberg demonstrates his filmmaking prowess.
West Side Story (2021) is more of an adaptation from the original 1950s musical book than a remake of the 60s film. We still follow the same premise, with the adapted “Romeo & Juliet” story transferred to 1950s New York neighborhood of the Upper West Side. We find the warring gangs: Sharks from Puerto Rico and the insecure whites, the Jets. At a school dance, one member of each gang falls for one another, Tony (Ansel Elgort) from the Jets and Maria (Rachel Zegler) from the Sharks.
While the original West Side Story film was a critical, awards, and box office hit, it has aged very poorly. This is due not only to the offensive white-washing and racist overtones, but also to the stage-y feel and the rather wooden filming of songs and numbers. Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner don’t seek to add a new coat of paint, but rather to completely revitalize the promising material. As such, the very same songs that might have seemed rather boring and interchangeable for non-Broadway lovers, spring to life with captivating choreography and fluid camerawork. Settings are changed so that we are not always revolving around the same building, instead exploring unique locations of the city. Spielberg also learns not to overwhelm viewers with song and has his dialogue moments work as proper narrative progressions as a result and pauses between numbers.
In terms of the modernization and revisions of the original musical’s misgivings regarding race, Spielberg does well to incorporate Latino voices and characters in a more impactful way. Spielberg also uses Latino culture to liven the screen and dance sequences, using color, dance, and spectacle as both respectful nods as well captivating visuals. A supporting role for Rita Moreno, who was one of the few actual Latinas in the original film, is created in Spielberg’s work. It proves to be a larger character than one would expect and utilizes the “double-entendres” of this casting to effectively comment on the story’s themes. There is also a better emphasis made regarding the racial polarizations. Just as in the simmering racial tensions of the 1950s and 60s, the world in the 2020s is in a similar stance. Spielberg is capable to not seem preachy or token-like in the integrationist elements of the original film, and instead has very subtle ways of asking for respect for each side. One of the most important ways in which Spielberg does this, is in his refusal to subtitle scenes where characters are speaking in Spanish. West Side Story’s central conflict is in a white population panicking and rejecting immigrants and their culture from integrating. In an interview, Spielberg himself said, that if he were to subtitle Spanish, he would be suppressing Hispanic culture in favor of the rigid Anglican expectations. Viewers should not forget that it’s not about understanding the words that are said on screen, but rather the journey of the characters. In an ingenious way, having non-Spanish speaking viewers experience the film forces them to participate in the very act of accepting and respecting characters and lives they don’t understand.
I was pleased that the American director chose to cast mostly unknowns, giving a boost to Broadway vets, as well as promising upstarts. Overall, the entire cast is made up of phenomenal singers and dancers. Rachel Zegler is a true revelation in her first ever film role as Maria. She transcends the flighty and fairy-like character that Maria was on the page to bring forth a truly dimensional and conflicted character. Likewise, Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita, is equally engrossing. Just as Rita Moreno did with the same character in 1961, DeBose steals every scene that she’s in, making even brief glimpses of her in an ensemble sequence leave viewers wanting more. As for Elgort in the lead role of Tony, I was pleasantly surprised. Elgort has rather become cloistered within a particular type of flirty/pretty-boy role, and while he certainly is playing the like in West Side Story, Spielberg is capable at pushing the actor to his limits, helping him deliver the best performance of his career.
In the end, West Side Story is one of the rare remakes that surpasses the original. Spielberg dons the film a tone of instant classic, potentially leading the many who exclaim “they don’t make movies like so-and-so anymore” to temporarily become silent. Spielberg had a monumental task reshaping this entire property, yet the way that he took risks and challenged his own capabilities and artistry demonstrates once again why he is the best of the best.