It’s hard to live up to something as timeless as Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story—something so infused into our collective cultural psyche that every snap, every twirl is ingrained into our brains even if you’re not like me, who has seen it so many times that it’s practically part of my family heritage. (One of the Shark actors shares the same name as my father, which is 2/3 of my own if you count my middle name.) And yet you have Spielberg, an icon whose works stand shoulder to shoulder with West Side Story in the pantheon of cinema, and who inspired a generation of filmmakers (and hopeful filmmakers like me) to pursue a standard for popular cinema that no one has come close to surpassing.
So it should be no surprise that this remake is in fact a good movie, probably one of the best of the year. The film has gone on to receive seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture). While that is still four shy of the original film’s record 11 nominations, it is still head and shoulders above most of the frustratingly lackluster entries in 2021’s COVID-blighted filmography. Only a master filmmaker like Spielberg would be able to handle such a gargantuan undertaking with the same grace embodied by Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, mixed with the urgent and fierce energy of Leonard Bernstein’s score.
Remaking a Classic
Is it perfect? No, and understandably so, since no one can replicate the sheer magic of the first half of the original; every number, every line, and every note is untouchably perfect, from the first whistle of the prologue to the last note of “Tonight (Reprise).”
But after that, the original film takes a dive in terms of its pacing, and that’s where the remake shines, thanks to some song and scene shuffling by Spielberg and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner: their reordering keeps the engaging pace of the story’s first half through the dramatic tension of the second. (For example, “Cool” in the original film goes on for far too long, but the 2021 adaptation not only shortens it, but uses the number to advance the plot at a more critical moment in the story.) Kushner and Spielberg have gone back to Arthur Laurents’ 1957 book as an inspiration for many of these changes, putting “America” after “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty” after the rumble (the latter choice being a bit controversial, but it worked for me).
Tony Kushner is no stranger to stage adaptations, having done uncredited work adapting August Wilson’s Fences for Denzel Washington’s phenomenal 2016 film. The screenplay for the remake adds new scenes that contribute to the film in a meaningful way without feeling gratuitous. One such scene involves the Jets attempting to buy a gun from a shady salesman at a bar, highlighting how in over their heads, they really are in their quest for turf dominance. More minor scenes, such as Anita going to the police after Bernardo is killed, are used as added context for later scenes and allow the actors to showcase their characters’ emotions in a subtle way.
What really would have felt fresh would be setting the film in the modern day. The original Broadway show and film were very much reactions to the growing concern for the plight of post-war urban families and the influx of immigrants, so seeing the same story and songs in a modern context would have been fascinating, albeit it definitely would have hurt the film at the box office. (It’s unfortunate that this film took a massive beating there against two other Disney-distributed films.)
While acknowledging the many small character improvements, namely Chino, I did miss the individuality of the Jets so clearly present in the original. The actors portrayed Riff and Bernardo adequately, but I wish they had put some star power into those roles to match up with the iconic performances given by their predecessors. It seems their casting was based more around their ability to perform on the stage—but that should not be the modus operandi for the big screen, as there is no longer a stable of musical film actors in Hollywood equivalent to that from which the original film was able to pull its phenomenal cast, such as Russ Tamblyn (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and George Chakiris (White Christmas, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T).
Casting & Story
Despite the choices mentioned above, Spielberg’s incredible eye for casting has not dimmed in terms of choosing legitimate stars for his leads. Choosing Elgort to play Tony right off of all the Baby Driver buzz is an inspired choice; the actor carries a charisma and rhythm for action akin to a Raiders-era Harrison Ford. Arguably his casting team’s most incredible find, however, is Rachel Zegler; coming straight from her high school drama department (Spielberg allowed her to finish out her school’s run of Shrek: The Musical before filming) right into the eye of Hollywood; receiving both a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for her debut, no less! Her chemistry with Elgort shines through every shared scene, and she has no problem transitioning from the radiant glee of “I Feel Pretty” to the muted sorrow of the whispered reprise of “Somewhere” at the film’s finale.
In this film, Tony and Maria’s relationship begins more organically: while both couples are struck with love at first sight, in Spielberg’s version they meet behind the bleachers, subsequently strike up a conversation, and even have a first date, as opposed to Tony awkwardly stumbling into the shop where Maria works. Their trip to the Cloisters is one of the best “new” scenes of the film that Kushner has added, and reflects Maria’s own Catholic culture as well as perhaps a newfound religious (or otherwise symbolic) awakening in Tony.
The real star of the film though is Rita Moreno, who at 89 turns in a performance that itself ought to guarantee her a nomination for her second Supporting Actress Oscar. Her new character, Valentina, is a welcome addition to the pantheon of West Side Story characters and, just like in the 1961 film, she steals the show in every scene she’s in.
Spielberg has crafted a loving pastiche of Hollywood musicals that is calling audiences of all ages back to the theaters, as the director readies for the release of his most personal film yet—The Fabelmans—later this year. Though the film features important and at times heavy themes of gang violence, racism, and a myriad of other social issues; these are all presented in a manner neither heavy-handed nor needlessly explicit, and most children over the age of 11 would be able to watch and understand the events unfolding on the screen.
Oh, and did I mention I watched this film on the West Side?