The original West Side Story, as a musical film and a cultural touchstone, is strangely both tied to the time period it was made in (seen by the fact that many of the actors were white folks in brownface), and also progressive and timeless and provocative in its message, craft, and presentation.
A loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in modern-day New York City, West Side Story was made as a stage musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (with groundbreaking choreography by Jerome Robbins) in the 1950s. It was their way of experimenting with new musical modes while adding class and social consciousness in the stories that premiered on Broadway. It permeated the public imagination as a musical film in 1961, winning ten Academy Awards and cementing itself as an instant classic.
And when you watch the movie, it’s understandable why so. The camera slides and swoons over these propulsive dances that feel almost primal and guttural in its ferocity and anger. The musical numbers can feel almost otherworldly in its appeal—the scene where Maria and Tony see each other in the dance and literally everything fades away is still breathtaking to behold. Robert Wise’s direction and Jerome Robbins’ choreography find a way to make the musical so much larger than life; so cinematic in its approach that it’s no wonder the movie is still considered a classic even with all the problematic and racist things about its production.
Hearing about a remake in the 21st century feels almost sacrilegious because of how good the 1961 movie is. How in the hell are you supposed to modernize a story that’s very much tied to the time period from which it came? West Side Story is the bedrock that influenced many of the important directors of the last 60 years. Michael Bay, for example, cites the movie as the foundation of his style. There probably isn’t any way you can remake the movie without it being disappointing in comparison.
And yet, somehow, it happened. The new West Side Story is, against all odds, not only a great film, but possibly a better film than the foundational 1961 classic. The new film improves on the original on pretty much all fronts, from the themes and message to the propulsive filmmaking that made the original so electrifying to watch. It successfully updates the material to a more-fractured and less hegemonic political world without losing the timeless appeal the source material has. It has done the impossible, and it has done so without breaking a sweat.
But then again, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The director of the remake is Steven Spielberg, who needs no introduction. The way he directs West Side Story is incomparable to any other director working today: each camera swoop, each precisely-measured frame of the film, is evocatively his style and his alone, and the artistry of his approach shows just how much of a master he is at turning films into an experience, breathlessly anticipating each scene.
With screenwriter and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, Spielberg recrafts West Side Story into a more potent film, starting with the social commentary. The most inspired bit of the film is reframing the fight between the Jets and the Sharks in a place where both groups are being kicked out as the area is gentrified. This puts the racial harmony message of the original in stark focus, as it shows the futility of the territory fight between the Jets and the Sharks against the bigger, faceless, insidious powers that control them, and the intersectionality of their struggles in the racist and classist America that they live in.
The intersectionality is the point, too, because Spielberg does a lot of little scenes where the homogeneity of American society battles with the identities of these marginalized individuals: the Puerto Rican Sharks are told to speak English many times in the company of white people, and they are seen as lesser people by the white society in general. The Jets’ poverty and criminal history are used against them by authorities–and their whiteness is only acknowledged when being compared to the Puerto Ricans. The women are forced to the sidelines as the men indulge in their worst patriarchal instincts in an attempt to dominate each other. And there’s even a transgender character whose identity is invalidated repeatedly throughout the story as he tries to be useful to the Jets.
These small touches and characterizations build towards that larger theme of racial harmony that the original had, but the new film also has this undercurrent that the cultural and material dominance of the hegemonic capitalist powers of American society renders everyone powerless, pushing them to find control and power in the arms of antiquated hierarchies that society perpetuates.
Spielberg and Kushner understand the original message of the film, and they also understand how it’s relevant in today’s society, where we see the previously-marginalized people push back against society’s hierarchy and how the powers-that-be, from the government to the elites, attempt to keep the structure strong by encouraging many of the marginalized to dip into their worst instincts and humor their worst beliefs as a way of keeping the infighting between the groups going whilst the powers-that-be continue to strengthen their own power and hegemonic wealth.
Beyond the framing, themes, and messaging, Spielberg also litters the movie with some of the most breathtaking musical scenes ever put to film. Knowing that film has less constraints than stage musicals have, Spielberg goes all-out bonkers on the way he shoots the numbers, from “America” becoming a neighborhood-spanning number that makes up for the less-guttural dance moves, with cinematic touches that energize the number; to the way he introduces the school dance as this one-shot scene that seamlessly floats and glides through the dancers and actors like a god.
My favorite change in the movie is the “Cool” sequence, where Spielberg and Kushner reimagine the number as a tension-filled scene where Tony (Ansel Elgort) attempts to dissuade his friend and the Jets’ leader Riff (Mike Faist) from fighting with the Sharks. Goddamn—I was at the edge of my seat as Tony and Riff battled for the gun in this ballet-inspired dance that feels closer to a fight than anything in the original 1961 movie. At any moment, it felt like anyone in the Jets would blow up, and it really helped set the stage for the actual fight that Tony and the Jets have with the Sharks later on.
Spielberg is a filmmaking legend at this point, and West Side Story basically reaffirms his legacy. He shows through this film that he is very much the same master of tension and suspense who made Jaws and War of the Worlds (2005), and that he is very much still, present tense, one of the most exciting directors currently working today. After watching this movie, it’s hard not to use superlatives when describing Spielberg, because he blows many of his contemporary filmmakers out of the water. Then again, it’s always been hard not to use superlatives to describe a talent like his.
The acting in front of the camera is top-class, too. Ansel Elgort, despite being a mediocre singer, is really good in bringing out the darkness inherent in a character like Tony, and you can see his appeal and why Maria would fall in love with him so quickly. Rachel Zegler, in her onscreen debut, embodies the innocence of Maria without letting it slip into naivety. She gives Maria a conviction and strength of will that is important in the role.
The way that Mike Faist put so much charm into his portrayal of Riff really makes him more sympathetic than he ought to be, and I love the cockiness that David Alvarez gives Bernardo, and how easily he can switch from cocky to caring in the same scene.
The star-making performance, however, is Ariana DeBose as Anita, who feels just as lived-in and assured in her approach to the role as Rita Moreno did decades ago. She’s also the best performer of the bunch when it comes to the musical sequences, the “America” sequence especially as she anchors the whizzing panoramic approach that Spielberg chose; something that would render a lesser actor lost in the wizardry. West Side Story (2021) is an incredible achievement in filmmaking, like the 1961 movie decades before. Its precision of intent and execution is amazing to behold, and it showcases not just the unparalleled talents of Spielberg and its cast, but also just how timeless the original musical is. There’s really no way of predicting which film released today will be remembered in the future, but in the moment, as you watch the spectacle and vision unfold in, it’s easy to surmise that Spielberg’s West Side Story will be a classic, canonized film for the future generations.