60 years after West Side Story originally hit the silver screen in 1961, acclaimed director Steven Spielberg has recreated the beloved musical in his signature style, adding modern elements to this classic tale of love and tragedy. As West Side Story 2021 has come to Disney Plus, now is as good a time as any to share my thoughts on this new interpretation with this review. This review does go into detail so there are spoilers ahead for both the 1961 and 2021 versions.
The Beginning of West Side Story
The opening of Spielberg’s film is all about tension. The 1961 version was more focused on building audience participation by making them wait almost five minutes before getting past the title card and getting a sample of the soundtrack, so you get a taste of what you’re in for. On the other hand, Spielberg wastes no time getting to the establishing shots, showing the destruction of the city up and close. Then the Jets literally emerge from the rubble; this is an element that I loved as the Jets were all born and raised in the city and developers and law enforcement simply see them as part of the rubble that needs to be cleared away. This is a view that the Jets themselves acknowledge, claiming that the city birthed them and is to blame for all of their flaws and behavioural issues.
As the Jets gather and the gang walking the streets gets larger, the tension increases. Unlike the 1961 West Side Story, where the Jets and Sharks are just roaming the streets having altercations when they bump into each other as they feel each other out, in Spielberg’s adaptation the Jets set out with a clear goal. The Jets go to a mural of the Puerto Rican flag and vandalise it, ensuring that the scuffles between the Sharks and Jets can’t just be chalked up to rival gangs fighting, but highlighting the racial motivations behind the conflict. This gives the film a more serious tone than the original which still had a slightly playful edge to it. Although the dance sequences are still excellent, there is more emphasis on the fights and scuffles than the original too, helping to ground the film in reality.
Riff and Bernado, played by Mike Faist and David Alvarez, are both brilliant. I loved Russ Tamblyn’s depiction of Riff in the 1961 edition, especially during ‘Gee, Officer Krupke,’ but I love Faist’s dialogue delivery (particularly when he is being dead pan) and the raw emotion he brings to the role. Faist’s Riff is still playful and jokey but there is an added level of sincerity to him. Riff’s relationship with Tony is also deepened in this adaptation, there is the sense of a sibling relationship between the two with Riff looking up to Tony as an older brother. Riff has been trying to fill Tony’s shoes while he’s been away, and although he is the leader of the Jets and is clearly respected by them, you get the impression that he doesn’t believe himself to be the true leader without Tony. He wants Tony back as he lacks confidence.
David Alvarez’s Bernado is also great; he’s incredibly charismatic and it’s immediately apparent why he’s the leader of the Sharks. I was surprised to find out Alvarez had taken a break from acting because he is so natural in front of the camera. He got the balance just right between his fierce boxer and gang leader side and his softer more caring side that comes out through his interactions with Maria, Anita, and Chino. In Spielberg’s version of the story Chino isn’t part of the Sharks and seems to have a bright future ahead of him; Bernado tries hard to keep him away from the gang activities, making it all the more tragic when he resorts to violence.
I also loved Alvarez’s rendition of ‘La Borinqueña’ after the opening altercation, which is performed with such strength and sums up Bernado’s character completely. Alvarez embodies the sense of pride that Bernado has for his country and his people, as well as the responsibility he feels for the Sharks and his family, putting the weight of every decision on his shoulders. As much as he loves his people and his family he doesn’t trust them to make decisions without him.
I’ll be honest, I liked Richard Beymer’s portrayal of Tony, but I did feel like he was a bit of a wet rag. In the 1961 West Side Story, Tony’s motivations for not wanting to be violent anymore and leaving the Jets aren’t the clearest. In Spielberg’s West Side Story, Tony is out on parole after nearly beating a kid from one of the rival gangs to death. How close he came to becoming a murderer and his time away has been a wake-up call for Tony and he no longer wants to resort to violence. Ansel Elgort does a good job conveying Tony’s guilt and regret, while also showing his optimistic side as he looks to the future. I also found it more believable that Elgort could have been a gang leader before, he holds himself with a sense of dignity and authority that is also present in Alvarez and George Chakiris’s Bernados. I didn’t get the same sense from Beymer’s Tony.
Tony’s skills are brilliantly shown in Justin Peck’s choreography during ‘Cool’ as Riff and Tony fight over the gun Riff has acquired for the rumble. Through most of the number Tony is in control, holding the gun just out of Riff’s reach as he tries to get Riff to call off the fight. Though I will say that the sequence could have been improved if Elgort had brought a bit more feeling to it, sometimes I get the impression he’s just going through the motions. I am also aware that Elgort’s singing ability has come under criticism for not being able to keep up with the other amazing talents in the film. While this may be true, I didn’t mind that his voice was on the weaker side because it served to enhance Maria’s (Rachel Zegler’s) more.
For an acting debut Rachel Zegler really went for it. I was never particularly fond of Maria (or Tony for that matter), but Zegler plays her with confidence and fire. The way Tony Kushner has written Maria means she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and confront her brother directly when she is angry with him. She is also willing to go after what she wants; she is the one to start dancing with Tony and she is the one to initiate the kiss.
Zegler’s singing is amazing and ‘a boy like that/I have love’ with Ariana DeBose is phenomenal. I also thought her final scene after seeing Chino shoot Tony was a brilliant piece of acting and Zegler portrayed Maria’s reaction in a way that was more believable than Natalie Wood’s performance. The sequence for ‘I feel pretty’ was also a lot of fun, Justin Peck’s choreography made the scene much more dynamic than the 1961 film and Zegler presented it in such an innocent and carefree way. This makes it even more hard hitting as Spielberg restored the placement of the song so that it takes place after Tony has killed Bernado, unbeknownst to Maria.
Possibly one of the most ingenious things writer Tony Kushner did was write a part for Rita Moreno. Valentina is Doc’s widow who now runs his shop, she provides Tony with a job and a place to live once he is out of prison and acts as an authority figure and confidante for him. She refuses to bow to pressures from any of the gangs and there is a level of respect shown towards her because of this, in fact she is the only adult that has any sort of control over the young people. Rita Moreno is also the one to sing ‘Somewhere.’ Although originally sung by one of the Shark girls on stage, and then as a duet between Tony and Maria in the 1961 film, the choice to have Rita Moreno sing ‘Somewhere’ as Valentina is the perfect choice to me.
Valentina is a Latina woman who married a white man and is viewed to have assimilated into American society; however, she is still true to her Puerto Rican roots. The song is enhanced by Moreno, who doesn’t overplay the performance, but is very understated with her delivery, conveying a quiet desperation to be able to live in a world where everyone accepts one another for who they are and can love whomever they choose. The fact that it is Rita Moreno singing makes the song even more poignant as she provides a link between the 1961 film and Spielberg’s 2021 edition, making it seem as though history is repeating itself.
Having to fill the shoes of Rita Moreno is no easy task, but Ariana DeBose couldn’t have played Anita any better. Anita is incredibly strong, outspoken, and loving; she is not afraid to put someone in their place if they deserve it, something difficult for women at the time to do, especially for a woman who is also an immigrant. Anita is arguably the character to go through the most emotional turmoil in West Side Story, losing Bernado and being sexually assaulted, but through all that she is also the most selfless. She is willing to help Maria runaway with Tony because she knows she loves him, putting Maria’s needs above her own and prepared to let her lover’s murderer go free.
Ariana DeBose manages to convey the full spectrum of Anita’s emotion throughout the film, able to go to these dark places, but also able to be playful and fun in the first half of the film. Her singing and dancing are always on point, and I am not surprised her shoes melted while filming the sequence for ‘America.’ Amazing.
In the 1961 film, ‘America’ takes place on the rooftop of a building at night, and it is dark and secluded from the rest of the city. Jerome Robbins’s choreography is great, the sequence is fun and energetic and wonderfully performed, he really concentrates on conveying the narrative purely through dance. Although this gives it a more intimate feel, it also still feels like a scene from a stage musical rather than a film and so doesn’t take full advantage of the medium. Spielberg’s version opens the scene up and takes viewers through the city as the song progresses, showing the different aspects of the Puerto Rican community’s everyday lives in America and mixing it with their dreams and ambitions. It is fast paced and full of colour. Ariana DeBose is outstanding as she dances through the city, with David Alvarez keeping up well. Spielberg also filmed it in a way that allows you to get the most out of it, you forget there are cuts and different shots, you just feel like you’re following the crowd. Having said that, at times the playful flirty nature of the song gets a little lost in Spielberg’s with some sections feeling more confrontational than teasing.
Gee, Officer Krupke
In the original musical ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ is sung by the Jets after the rumble has gone down and Bernado and Riff are dead as a way to cheer themselves up a little. In the 1961 film it takes place before the meeting between Riff and Bernado to decide the particulars of the rumble, and in Spielberg’s 2021 film it occurs after the rumble has been set. Out of all three Spielberg’s placement of the number makes the most sense to me, but I am torn between which version I like better, 1961 or 2021.
I particularly love Jerome Robbins’s choreography for this sequence and Russ Tamblyn is really charismatic in it, but I think the 2021 reimagining tops it. Something that I’ve noticed about Justin Peck’s choreography compared to Robbins’s is that it is much more dynamic, and uses as much of the space as possible, making the numbers more engaging to watch. I also like the fact that ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ is used as a way to explain the harsh realities of a situation in which social mobility is virtually non-existent to Baby John, contrasting the playful nature of the song with the darker messages underneath.
Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is a genius. One of the first things that captured my attention about West Side Story 2021 was the lighting, hence I am saving it for last. There are a few scenes where the lighting really stands out, the first is the dance at the gym. Tony and Maria meet and dance with each other, immediately falling in love with each other.
In the 1961 version an effect is used to create sparkling colours around them as the rest of the world falls away and they only have eyes for each other. Kamiński recreates this effect but in a way that still grounds the film in reality; lights around the gym shine through the bleachers, so shards of light and lens flares surround the budding couple, adding to the fairy tale quality of the scene in a plausible way. A similar technique is used during ‘One Hand, One Heart’ with light shining through stained glass windows, making the scene seem like it is set in a fairy tale castle straight from a Disney animation.
Another scene in which light is crucial is the rumble. Taking place under a highway, light comes through in drips and drabs, with certain areas being lit up momentarily as cars drive by overhead. Kamiński lights characters’ faces in various ways, leaving some areas concealed in shadow and others brightly lit, this increases the tension of the scene and allows for the reactions and expressions of characters like Riff, Bernado, Tony, and Chino to be seen clearly or hidden. Then at the end of the scene when both Bernado and Riff are dead the police come, signified by red and blue light coming through the windows, the red light lingers longest probably to symbolise the blood shed and death that has occurred.
During the credits shadows are shown to roll away and be replaced by light, possibly a reference to the song ‘Tonight’ which has the lyric “The world is full of light,” and hopefully alludes to the coming of a more positive era where the Jets and the Sharks and other gangs are able to put away their differences.
While remakes of classic films and musicals are often dreaded as they have such a high bar to meet, Spielberg and his team have managed to revitalise West Side Story. They were respectful towards the original but also weren’t afraid to make changes that enhance the experience for today’s audience and add more depth. Musicals generally have a style that is quite surreal, what with breaking out into song and dance every so often, but Spielberg’s choice to ground West Side Story in realism is very effective and drives home the messages the musical aims to convey without being overbearing. It’s a great piece of cinema and definitely worth the watch.
West Side Story 2021 is available in Disney+ and if you want to compare it to the original West Side Story 1961 is on Amazon Prime.