West Side Story Review: Spielberg’s Musical Remake Is Magnetic But Flawed

Although remakes of classic films are not new, there is a responsibility to keep them current regardless of the time period. Steven Spielberg, a renowned director, attempts to achieve this with 2021’s West Side Story. He alters certain aspects of the 1961 musical film, adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical written by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim (he recently died at 91). West Side Story has a screenplay by Tony Kushner. It is emotionally charged, visually captivating, and the choreography, staging, and music are magnetic, even though certain parts of the story may not always work.

Spielberg’s West Side Story is a remake of the original musical. It follows the same story as the film. The Jets, a predominantly Irish gang, are provoked by Riff (Mike Faist), by the Sharks (David Alvarez), by Bernardo (Puerto Rican gang) over territory that was fueled by racism by the Jets. The street gangs are constantly at the brink of a rumble, and there is a lot of tension. Tony (Ansel Elgort), an ex-leader of the Jets and recently released for beating someone near death, encourages the Riff to join them in the fight against the Sharks. Tony disagrees. Bernardo and Anita, his girlfriend (Ariana DeBose), encourage Maria (Rachel Zegler), Maria’s 18-year old sister, to meet Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), Bernardo’s kind-hearted friend who has not been involved with the Sharks. Maria and Tony fall in love at a gym dance, increasing tension between the Sharks and Jets.

The West Side Story adaptation is faithful to the musical. However, Spielberg and Kushner make significant changes to the story and characters to add realism and alter aspects of the plot to benefit some things and detriment to others. The film’s 1961 version felt harsher, with a more bluntness surrounding all the characters and their lives. Songs such as “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “A Boy Like That” have an added layer of sadness and darkness. Certain character decisions, including Rita Moreno’s Valentina, a re-imagined Doc, also add a layer of sorrow and darkness. The changes include song placement, the addition of characters such as Valentina, and the decision to make Anybodys (Ezra Menas) more transgender (instead of being implied in the original film). West Side Story has an incredibly well-made film. Spielberg is clearly capable of handling a complex and multilayered musical.

However, the alterations do not always work. Some stories and perspectives lack the depth necessary to bring out the best parts of the story. The Jets are the focus here, particularly as their backstories, dynamics, and interactions with one another play out. However, the Sharks are elevated in certain roles but still left behind overall. Others, such as the Sharks accents, are not necessary. West Side Story shows the inability to capture the diversity of Puerto Rican life in New York City, as the emphasis still leans heavily toward the Jets. Beyond the lyrics to “America,” which are a mix of stage and film versions, the film has little to no information about assimilation in America. Spielberg’s best performance is when he leaves the 1961 film’s rooftop setting and allows the cast to walk the streets of their community, which displays more of Puerto Rican culture.

The musical numbers are well-choreographed, and the staging is fluid. The cameras move to capture the actors’ movements. Paul Tazewell designed the stunning costumes. This makes them memorable and more enjoyable to watch. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is rich and gritty. The camera zooms in on actors when they feel too intense or raw to see away. This adds depth and nuance to a complex plot and strong performances. Ariana DeBose’s performance as Anita is unforgettable. It’s full of joy, heartbreak, and so much passion. DeBose is magnetic on-screen and steals every scene. DeBose is bound to win the audience’s hearts as well, and they will be eager to see more of her in future productions.

Mike Faist is dedicated to his role of Riff. He manages to make an unlikeable character somewhat sympathetic. Faist’s intense portrayal is reminiscent of DeBose. David Alvarez plays Bernardo with great panache. The pair share a lot of chemistry. In her first film role,  Rachel Zegler does an excellent job portraying Maria’s innocence, self-involvement, and love for Tone. Ansel Elgort is a decent singer, but her performance as Tony is not as strong as it could be. She overacts in scenes that need more reflection and doesn’t always match Zegler’s love-struck youth. Rita Moreno plays Valentina with a fierce yet weary performance. It’s wonderful that she is part of the new film and not just a cameo.

West Side Story has a lot of things to love, including the stunning detail, the feel and look of the film and the musical performances. There are also updates to certain parts of the story that you will enjoy. Despite filmmakers’ best efforts, there are always changes that don’t work. West Side Story is still captivating. The cast lights up the screen passionately and makes the most of the storylines.


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