West Side Story
- Directed by: Steven Spielberg
- Musical/Romance | PG-13 | 2 hr 36 min
- Exclusively in Theaters
By Reed Ripley
It’s been a long time since something outside the realm of superheroes or space wizards has blown me away at the theater, but Steven Spielberg’s revival of West Side Story did just that. It’s a cinematic achievement on the level of Spielberg’s greatest, period, and when we’re talking Jaws and Jurassic Park, that’s not filler praise.
West Side Story is essentially Romeo and Juliet set during one fateful two-day stretch in 1957 New York City. On one side, the Jets, a white teenage street gang, and on the other, the Sharks, a rival Puerto Rican gang trying to establish a foothold in America after immigration. Caught in the middle are Tony and María, two young lovers who try to make it amidst the groups’ clash. There’s not much more to it than that plot-wise, and its simplicity is why it works so well (obviously, as the story is more than four centuries old).
It’s impossible to talk about this film without framing it against the original 1961 adaptation, and, although this may border on heretical, Spielberg’s version is better in virtually every way. There are two big picture flaws with the original, one technical and one substantive. First, it’s shot straight up as a Broadway stage production, and the film audience is put in basically the same position as a stage audience. There are a finite number of sets, and the actors interact with each other as if they’re playing to the back of the room. While this lets the songs and set-piece choreography shine, it doesn’t do much to engage a film audience with the story or its characters.
The 2021 version is a massive correction. Every scene is imbued with a physicality and sheer realness that just isn’t there in the original. Sure, the characters still break into song and dance numbers, but the way they interact and move through the West Side feels so natural, and it’s totally enveloping in a way its predecessor simply didn’t reach. We get to see so much more of the city, from the police station to construction sites, to side streets and main thoroughfares, and even to Gimbel’s. There are also several changes to plot structure that just make sense from a cinematic standpoint, and decisions across the board were clearly made to make this a better cinematic experience.
The second major miss with the original, and the more glaring, is its lack of diversity. This isn’t a “woke” “cancel culture” thing; it’s not merely about a lack of opportunity for non-white actors, although that’s certainly valid on its own. West Side Story’s central plot and themes largely feature Puerto Ricans’ experience immigrating to America, and, surprise surprise, it’s really hard to sincerely depict that when most of the main cast (excluding the wonderful Rita Moreno, who plays a major role in the revival) are white and slathered with makeup to (unconvincingly) pass as Puerto Rican.
Again, 2021’s adaption corrects this gigantic problem, and it cannot be overstated how much that improved the result. The Puerto Rican characters are portrayed by actors with Hispanic heritage, and the whole thing has an authentic feel that wasn’t there before. The characters actually speak Spanish (no subtitles, but they’re unnecessary); the Puerto Rican flag is prominent in the background of several scenes; the first musical number is the Sharks’ version of “La Borinqueña,” the Puerto Rican national anthem. They’re little details, but those details add up to a major improvement in authenticity and earnestness, especially coming from actors who can understand the details’ import.
Too, there are so many other touches, some subtle and some stark, that add depth to the characters and setting, and those additions engender much more emotional weight. A sampling: the city is converting the West Side to a sparkly new neighborhood, with Lincoln Center as its crowing jewel, which adds an existential gentrification crisis on top of the Jets/Sharks feud; Tony extricated himself from the Jets specifically because he’s out on parole for his actions at the most recent Rumble, and he’s terrified at his own capacity for violence; Bernardo is a mentor to Chino, whom he bars from joining the Sharks because he wants Chino to rise above their status and carry María with him. A superb cast delivers this added depth with aplomb, especially Rachel Zegler (María), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Mike Faist (Riff), Ariana DeBose (Anita), and even Ansel Elgort (Tony), who isn’t quite as technically gifted as the other leads, but still imbues the role with a unique type of physicality and an endearing pathos.
Although this version’s changes define it, what didn’t change deserves just as much credit. The songs and score are faithful recreations of those introduced in Johnny Green’s Oscar-winning 1961 adaptation, and it’s a good thing, too, because the songs are incredible. The choreography, too, is phenomenal. Although altered more than the music, it obviously draws inspiration from choreographer Jerome Robbins’s original work, and any tweaks are only there to make the dancing more cinematic.
Spielberg took his first shot at a musical and produced a stone cold classic. It’s simultaneously one of the greatest remakes and greatest movie musicals of all time, and if we’re stuck with recycled intellectual property, please let it be more of this.
Reed Ripley is a movie aficionado who in his spare time is a local attorney. You can find Ripley’s movie reviews on Instagram @mct.film.