West Side Story (Review): A Timely Remake Made With Love

Steven Spielberg just released his version of West Side Story. Can it live up to the original? And is it a good film in its own right? Read on to find out…

Just a disclaimer: I’m gonna compare this film to the original a lot. So apologies if that bothers you. “Why can’t you just talk about this as a movie of its own?” you might ask. Because it’s NOT a movie on its own. It’s a new version of an Oscar winner for Best Picture (back when that actually meant something)/ cinematic masterpiece. So I think some comparison is warranted.

The year: 1957; the setting: a neighbourhood New York City’s Upper West Side where Peurto Ricans and white Americans struggle to co-exist. Two local gangs– The Sharks (Peurto Rican) and The Jets (American)– plan an all-out rumble to settle who controls the turf once and for all. But when a former Jet and a young Peurto Rican girl fall in love, their romance fans the flames of aggression on both sides. Can they bridge their neighbourhood’s divide or will they tear it apart completely?

Spielberg made this film as a passion project, and it’s evident how much he loves the material. Love is the difference between a filmmaker who produces something special and one who churns out the same old trash to make a quick buck. If Spielberg cared enough to make an adaptation of West Side Story, you might care to watch it.

This version of West Side Story sets itself apart from its forebear in multiple ways, though I mostly care to discuss its “edge”. I mean– the story can only be so edgy with characters singing and dancing during brawls, but it’s certainly a less sanitized version of events than I’ve seen before. Characters are dressed in dirty, tattered clothes; violence is more literal than metaphorical; people’s backstories are darker; and the gangs are treated more like burgeoning criminals than wayward youths.

It also tops the original by fleshing out certain aspects: certain characters featured a greater depth (which I’ll get to later), we’re shown more of the characters’ personal lives (like their workplaces and homes), Spielberg shows off more of the neighbourhood, and he escalated the situation further than the original. There’s arguably more tension this time around. And establishing this neighbourhood as on the verge of gentrification adds a layer of poignant futility to the proceedings.

The Jets “in gear” in West Side Story

Perhaps the best change is the new film’s discussions of why hateful attitudes form. Racism is the easy answer, but West Side Story‘s issues run deeper than dislike of people’s skin tones. To the impoverished white kids, the Peurto Ricans represent their own fears of the world: their families failed to succeed at the American dream, so they’re resentful of these people who still have hope. They’re also stuck in a place which is rapidly changing around them in ways they don’t understand, and they’re fighting to maintain the world as they know it. ‘Cause fighting is all they know.

Meanwhile, the Peurto Ricans feel like outsiders in their own country and fight for respect. They hope to fulfill the American Dream, but many of them think said dream is rigged against “foreigners”. The system is demeaning and they don’t want to work within it. But they have few other options. The Jets’ desperate clinging to their “turf” is seen as one more barrier for the Peurto Ricans. If they can control their own neighbourhood, then maybe things will improve. Or they’ll at least feel better about their situation.

So how’s the music in this musical? Great! But West Side Story has been popular for over 60 years, so that’s hardly new information. Leonard Berstein and Stephen Sondheim penned some all-time classics.

The better question is: How was the music performed? Also great (I’m pleased to report)! This cast has splendid singing voices. Everyone packed their performances with emotion. Some songs even gave me chills! The most hard-hitting performance for me was “A Boy Like That/ I Have A Love”, late in the film.

Beyond performance: how were the musical numbers shown? Spielberg opted to make the camera as dynamic as the singers and dancers! I’d argue it was dancing too. Such a choice helped maintain West Side Story‘s energy, even in its slower moments. It also allowed us to move through a scene as if we were characters in the story ourselves.

Justin Peck’s stellar choreography helps elevate the material. Dancing is just as important to musical expression as singing, and Peck made sure to communicate as much as possible through movement. Some characters, like Anita, come more alive through dance than through any of their dialogue. Of the musical numbers, “Gee Officer Krupke” was the most impressive, followed closely by “America.”

One more quick note on production-things so that this review can keep moving: the set-designs and costumes were gorgeous! 1950s New York City felt well-realized and culturally distinctive.

So much life, even in a still image!

Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Anita (Ariana DeBose) stood out as the best-handled characters, followed closely by Bernado (David Alvarez) and Riff (Mike Faist). Rachel Zegler in particular stole every scene she was in. She radiated life and maintained a charming screen presence. I hope to see her in more movies going forward.

Rita Moreno had a far bigger role in West Side Story than I expected! Her character Valentina replaces “Doc”– Tony’s boss and the owner of a neighbourhood drug store. She acts as a community matriarch and helps bridge the divide between Sharks and Jets (being of Peurto Rican descent but being the widow of a white man). Valentina also has this Mother/ Son type of relationship with Tony. That was a great choice! It’s amazing how a few small changes to the source material can give it more layers. Moreno is amazing in the film, by the way. Veteran actors are often able to lend a gravitas which makes a good role even better.

I save Tony (Ansel Elgort) for last because he was a mixed bag. Elgort was perfectly good in the role. And though Tony’s character was always boring to me, this version had a more compelling arc than before. He actually had some edge, considering he was a former gang member. WSS also turns his meeting Maria as a path to redemption instead of just a random love affair. This makes their relationship all the more meaningful to him.

Getting into the negative now: Tony’s relationship with Riff was too antagonistic for my liking. They called each other “brother” but seemed to be at each other’s throats the whole time. Sure it was compelling, and I could tell they cared for one another, but I wanted to see more fraternal love like Bernado and Chino (or like Tony and Riff in the original). But that may be my biases talking rather than West Side Story‘s execution… I’ve also played Riff on multiple occasions, so I’m not very objective (which is why I’m refraining on discussing the character in-depth).

The chemistry between Zegler and Elgort existed, but was weak. They had a great first scene though I didn’t buy into their romance so much after that. Maybe that wouldn’t be a problem if the rest of the film didn’t hinge on their relationship…

They were just… OK together.

Moving on to another complaint… Spielberg’s grounding the subject matter (relatively) might work for some people but less so for me. I complained about the same thing in my Dear Evan Hansen review. I for one prefer my musicals on the fantastical side. West Side Story (2021) has plenty of flare yet feels like it’s holding itself back. Most of the musical numbers consist of characters walking or dancing through their neighbourhood. None of this is a problem per se. There just could have been more… I don’t know what. Just something more– some missing spark to take affairs to another level.

This last thing isn’t so much a criticism as a warning… Spielberg made a bold but controversial choice to forgo English subtitles in this film. So, when the Peurto Ricans speak Spanish to one another (which happens a lot), good luck figuring it out unless you know the language. Now, in defense of that decision: I’ll say it forced me to focus more on the actors and HOW they delivered their lines. I didn’t need to see a literal translation to understand what they were trying to say.

And maybe the lack of subtitles is meant to prove a point; that just because we speak different languages doesn’t mean we’re not still watching human beings. I’m not Spanish or Peurto Rican but I can still understand what they’re communicating if I just pay attention. How about I make a SUPER controversial claim and say anyone who’s upset about subtitles is like the folks in West Side Story who’re so against what’s unfamiliar. Maybe we’re meant to think less of our own comfort and sympathize with the film’s Peurto Ricans for having to immerse themselves in a language with which many of them don’t have a firm grasp. Well– that’s one way to read into the situation.

NOTE: I’m not calling you Xenophobic for wanting English subtitles… I’m just saying your reaction might be part of Spielberg’s Master Directorial plan to have you dive deeper into the work (potentially).

Is anybody else sad that this story is relevant? Far as I’m concerned, Spielberg’s remake was justified– if only show modern audiences how little our world has changed. You can trade out Tony and Maria and their cultural backgrounds for anybody but the point stands: when giant social factions hate one another, everybody gets hurt. Though the greatest tragedies are those rational people who want peace to prevail end up getting caught in the crossfire.

Spielberg’s West Side Story could very well be a modern classic! It’s certainly one of the best films I’ve seen in 2021. I even got home and sang “I Feel Pretty” in the mirror to myself (it’s one of the most delightful songs ever written– I challenge you not to do the same). It improves on the old film in many key ways, and I can see how tonnes of musical-fans would prefer it, though I still prefer the original.

I didn’t love West Side Story (2021) like I wanted to, but it’s very well-made and I consider it Must See.

Just for fun: here’s a clip of my friends and I from 2011 performing the “Jets Song” in Grade 7. I’m in the green jacket. Wouldn’t be the last time I played Riff, but the other time is too long to show ya. Enjoy!

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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