For fans of the classic 1961 filmed version of the stage musical West Side Story, the initial trailers for Steven Spielberg’s 2021 update weren’t necessarily inviting. The first images made it obvious that Spielberg was drawing heavily on the ’61 version, with very similar staging, choreography, costuming (from designs to cuts to colors), and even specific shots and sequences. The question was why the world needed a new version of the story, if Spielberg was just planning to play copycat. Remaking a classic is a dicey bet for anyone, even a filmmaker of Spielberg’s stature, because every remake needs a reason to exist.
But the film itself provides an answer, with supreme passion and killer confidence. Spielberg takes a great deal of inspiration from original directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, and he holds to a lot of the specifics that made the ’61 version so indelible. He’s clearly a fan of the original movie, but that doesn’t prevent him from making this story his own, in a variety of ambitious and compelling ways.
[Ed. note: This review covers some of Spielberg’s changes and additions to West Side Story, which could be considered spoilers.]
The setting of 2021’s West Side Story is the same as it’s always been: 1950s New York City, in a run-down working-class neighborhood valued only by the residents who take pride in walking tall on their own turf. The story is the same: In an updated retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, two street gangs clash over territory, and when two young people with ties to those gangs fall in love, tensions boil over. The songs are the same: Leonard Bernstein’s jagged, urgent, catchy music and Stephen Sondheim’s tricky lyrics combine to express the story’s big emotions in ways designed to leave audiences humming along after the credits roll.
But while Spielberg’s version respects the past, Tony Kushner’s evolution of Arthur Laurents’ stage play also takes every opportunity to add nuance. Kushner adds an irony: As the gangs battle over who most owns the neighborhood, the city’s planning commission is planning to flatten the whole area for an urban-renewal project. It’s a heavy-handed thought, matched by setpieces where the neighborhood is increasingly reduced to piles of rubble around the people who are fighting over it. But there’s certainly a message there about the petty futility of the racial and class battles the residents are fighting, given the bigger picture around them.
The story once again starts with the Jets, a gang of white working-class boys who rule nine blocks of rough, run-down neighborhood. Their cocky leader Riff (Mike Faist), who co-founded the Jets with his childhood friend Tony (Ansel Elgort), has fought off challenges from other rivals in the past, but the Jets find their match in the Sharks, a group of Puerto Ricans who’ve built their own enclave and launched their own businesses. From Riff’s perspective, the Sharks are pushy, unwanted invaders who provoke fights by defying the natives’ well-established territorial claim. To the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo (David Alvarez), Riff and his boys are bigots and bullies, representative of the inherent racism and oppression underlying the so-called land of opportunity. When Tony and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) encounter each other at a local dance, they fall for each other in the instantaneous way of movie musicals and Romeo and Juliet stories, and their appalled community, already primed for violence, erupts around them.
While many of Spielberg’s setpieces evoke Robbins’ choices from 1961, Spielberg takes some particularly bold steps, utterly re-imagining the classic numbers to give them new urgency and dynamism. But the smaller changes to the script wind up feeling more vital, giving the characters some new depth.
The Puerto Rican characters get most of the new focus. The original play had more empathy and admiration for fresh-off-the-boat immigrants than was culturally common in the place and era where the story was set. Spielberg and Kushner’s version underlines those sympathies even further. The filmmakers made a crucial update in the casting, replacing the 1961 version’s Sharks — mostly white and non-Latinx actors in brownface — with an all-Latinx cast. And they pack significant scenes with unsubtitled Spanish dialogue — not clumsy Spanglish or the odd mid-sentence language-swapping that’s become common in TV shows and games trying to establish a setting and culture without alienating English speakers. If anything, this West Side Story feels like it was made first and foremost for bilingual viewers.
The changes extend to the character backstories as well. Bernardo now has an incipient career as a boxer. His vivacious girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) has significant career ambitions, while Maria has built a history in America that far outstrips her brother’s. Even Bernardo’s buddy Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) is more of a character in this retelling — not just the harmless nerd Bernardo keeps pushing at Maria, but Bernardo’s best friend, who he’s trying to protect from any interaction with the gangs. The changes are superficial, and they don’t much shift the story. Some of them just raise questions — shouldn’t Bernardo be in training, instead of running around the streets, fighting with local kids?
But every small touch stands out in making the story specific, focused as much on individual people as on the flashy dance numbers and memorable songs they perform. Riff and the Jets don’t get as much of a reboot, but romantic lead Tony does. In this version of the story, he’s freshly back from a prison stint after nearly killing another kid in a fight. His horror at his own capacity for violence has given him extra reason to recoil when Riff tries to pull him back into gang life. Here, Tony was raised by a Puerto Rican woman, Valentina (Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the ’61 version) after he lost his parents. Being raised with one foot on each side of the growing racial divide around him makes his attraction to Maria and his inability to understand Bernardo’s hatred of him even more understandable.
So much of Spielberg’s version is just the Robbins version, plus those added grace notes in the script. A few of the classic songs are boldly re-envisioned; “Cool,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” have different tones and settings that shift their meanings. Though in the movie’s biggest miscalculation, Spielberg takes the plaintive “I wish” song “Somewhere” away from Tony and Maria, and gives it to Valentina. The scene is a tearjerker that thoroughly respects Moreno’s meaningful history with the show and with a Hollywood that often couldn’t find a place for her talents. But the song feels thin as a solo number instead of a duet, and there’s a significant shift in meaning between two young people imagining a world where their doomed new love might flourish, and an 89-year-old woman imagining a reunion with her dead husband. Worse, moving the song away from Maria and Tony robs the play of its poignant reprise, blunting the film’s ultimate emotional impact at a key moment.
Apart from that song, though, Moreno’s performance is warm and welcome, and it’s a strong addition to a cast that mostly brings all the necessary zing to this emphatic musical material. The major standout is Mike Faist, one of the few gang members who, at 29, passes for a feral, precocious 17. Zegler and DeBose are also riveting performers, and the scenes where they face off against each other, or gang up on Alvarez, are particularly lively.
But the real star of the show is Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s camera, which goes places Robbins never could back in 1961. The swirling skirts and Latin-infused choreography of the “America” performance or the neighborhood dance-off come out of the ’60s version, but in this rendition, the camera flies over the action, dives between the dancers’ legs, and swoops in close to capture their faces. When Riff and Tony face off over a weapon on a disintegrating platform in “Cool,” the camera leaps back and forth between them like an extra combatant in the fray. In places where Robbins stood back as if trying to take in an entire Broadway stage at once, Kaminski gets into the heart of the action. It’s breathtaking, and even a little threatening, to be so immersed in such fast-paced movement and color.
The same could be said of the rest of the film, which features Spielberg doing his best to make a broad, energetic story even broader, while at the same time keeping an eye on the finest details that make up the world. He’s managed a remake that deviates from the original without losing its heart or its appeal, and that justifies its existence artistically without becoming unrecognizable. It’s a hell of an achievement, and the rare case where a remake feels like an act of fervent fandom.
West Side Story is now streaming on Disney Plus.