WEST SIDE STORY (2021) – Spielberg’s Remake on Par with 1961 Original

I finally caught up with Steven Spielberg’s remake of WEST SIDE STORY (2021) the other day, as it is now streaming on Disney Plus.

I generally liked it.

A lot.

Is it better than the 1961 original? That’s a tough one. In some ways it is, but in others it isn’t. I certainly enjoyed Spielberg’s take on the musical and watching the story unfold through his directorial eye, and I also enjoyed some of the changes made, including replacing Doc with his wife, played here by Rita Moreno. At the end of the day, I think it’s fair to say the two versions are equally as good, and since the 1961 WEST SIDE STORY is one of the best movie musicals ever filmed, that places this version in high company.

The plot of WEST SIDE STORY is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, except it was updated to take place in the 1950s, and rather than the rival Capulets and Montagues, the musical had rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Spielberg’s version keeps the action in the 1950s. The Jets are made up of young American hoodlums, while the Sharks hail from Puerto Rico.

Instead of Romeo, we have Tony (Ansel Elgort), the once proud leader of the Jets, who after spending a year in jail after nearly killing a boy in a fight, has seen the error in his ways and is trying his best to keep away from his former Jet buddies. In place of Juliet, there’s Maria (Rachel Zegler), whose brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) is the leader of the Jets. Tony and Maria meet at a dance and instantly fall in love, and also quickly realize that they shouldn’t be falling in love because they both belong to opposite sides which are intent on beating up the other. However, they can’t resist, and when Tony agrees to go to the big rumble hoping to stop it and make peace, things instead go horribly wrong and tragedy ensues.

I will say here that as much as I have always loved WEST SIDE STORY, in terms of plot, it pales in comparison to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The characters aren’t fleshed out as well, the divide between the Jets and Sharks is not as intense as the one between the Capulets and Montagues, and the ensuing tragedy is not as horrific. I’m not pointing this out as a knock on WEST SIDE STORY, but rather to give a nod to the superiority of the source material. Romeo and Juliet ends in a blood bath. WEST SIDE STORY ends with a song.

And it’s the songs, the music and the dancing that makes WEST SIDE STORY what it is, and on that note, Spielberg’s version does not disappoint. All the songs are here and are beautifully realized. The choreography is excellent, differing slightly from the 1961 version. There’s an elegance and grace here among the Jets and Sharks’ dance numbers that highlights strength yet isn’t quite as fiercely violent as the 1961 choreography. There’s an energy in the 1961 dance numbers that isn’t quite present here in the 2021 version, which doesn’t make the new film inferior, but different. The choreography has a confidence about it that allows it to do its own thing, apart from its 1961 predecessor. This being said, it doesn’t so much put a new stamp on the material as it does a nuanced tweaking.

I particularly enjoyed the songs “America,” “Cool,” “Tonight,” and “I Feel Pretty,” as these four are examples where the new version improved on the original. Just small things, like having Tony sing “Cool” to Riff really worked.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the stage play by Arthur Laurents, is excellent. Both the Jets and the Sharks gain sympathy for being youths without a home, as their neighborhood is in the process of being demolished, making way for new homes for wealthier residents. The Sharks are seen in an even more favorable light as they are viewed as protectors of their Puerta Rican neighborhood from the vandalism shown it by the Jets.

The creation of a new character, Valentina, the widow of original character, Doc, works exceedingly well. It certainly helps that Valentina is played by Rita Moreno, who starred in the 1961 version as Anita. The 81-year-old singer/actress is exceptional.

The dialogue is superb, and many of the scenes work better than in the 1961 predecessor. The attempted rape of Anita, for example, is handled with much needed outrage and disgust which wasn’t the case in the ’61 film. While it was played in ’61 as a violent attack on Anita, just how awful such an act was never came through. It does here.

One of the issues I’ve always had with the 1961 WEST SIDE STORY is I never was nuts about the two leads. Natalie Wood was okay as Maria, but she wasn’t Latino, and Richard Beymer never really worked for me as Tony. Strangely, Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY runs into similar problems, but not with Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria. Zegler is really good, and I enjoyed her performance throughout.

But, Ansel Elgort as Tony is a different matter. At times I liked him, but there were other times when his performance wasn’t doing it for me. Early on, Elgort’s take on the brooding, introspective Tony works really well, but later, when he and Maria meet, he never seems to move beyond the introspective persona. In short, I never really felt the passion he was supposed to be feeling for Maria. Elgort has starred in the DIVERGENT series, and he was okay as the lead in BABY DRIVER (2017), but he isn’t much more than okay here as Tony. I was underwhelmed.

As such, Zegler and Elgort really don’t have much chemistry going on, as they don’t exactly set off fireworks together when on screen, and this definitely works against the film. You have this epic love story between Maria and Tony, but your actors aren’t feeling it. That’s a problem.

My two favorite performances were actually David Alvarez as Bernado and Mike Faist as Riff. Both these actors brought their characters to life and filled them with emotion and passion, something that was noticeably absent from Elgort’s interpretation of Tony.

Ariana DeBose is very good as Anita, and Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank and Brian d’Arcy James as Officer Krupke both stand out as well. Likewise, Josh Andres Rivera makes for a thoughtful yet confused Chino, an interpretation that I much preferred over his 1961 counterpart.

And Iris Menas is notable as Anybodys, another character who was helped by an updated screenplay, as gender issues are spoken of head on here in a way they were only hinted at back in 1961.

Rita Moreno seals the deal with her portrayal of new character Valentina.

And kudos to Steven Spielberg. At 75 years-old, he continues to be an inspiring filmmaker. WEST SIDE STORY, in spite of the lack of passion between its two leads, is still an entertaining and moving musical.

I also enjoyed some of the direct nods in the screenplay given to the source material, Romeo and Juliet. Lieutenant Schrank speaks of keeping the peace, a direct reference to his counterpart, the Prince, in Shakespeare’s play. And when Maria kisses him first, Tony is surprised and apologizes that in such things he goes by the book, which is a reference to Juliet telling Romeo that he kisses “by the book.”

At the end of the day, Steven Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY is both a successful remake and an enjoyable musical in its own right. While it’s far from perfect, it does update the story—even though it still takes place in the 1950s— to modern day sensibilities, and as such is a refreshing take on a love story between two people from very opposite sides of the tracks, although in this version, we see that those tracks really aren’t as opposite as folks back then believed.

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