Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (2021) smartly updates and improves upon a classic…


Robert Wise’s “West Side Story,” 1961.

Director Robert Wise’s 1961 film of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway hit “West Side Story” was the “Hamilton” of its day; a 1957-set retelling of Shakespeare’s timeless tragic romance, “Romeo and Juliet,” as seen through the eyes of rival New York City street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets (standing in for the Montague and Capulet families, respectively). In what was then a bold depiction of racial strife, Robbins’ musical featured the Jets as a caucasian gang, while the Sharks were their Puerto Rican rivals. The movie was partly filmed in and around real New York City locales, including the actual Lincoln Center construction site–a powerful symbol of future gentrification that cast a shadow over both street gangs. Robbins adapted his play from the book by Arthur Laurents, while screenwriter Ernest Lehman adapted the play for the screen. “West Side Story” swept the Oscars at the 1962 Academy Awards, winning in 11 categories, including Best Picture, Director, Songs, Music, Production Design, you name it.

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in 1961’s “West Side Story”; Jerome Robbins’ then-contemporary musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

The film starred Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as lovestruck teenagers Tony and Maria, each trapped in urban poverty and gang rivalries that take a tragic toll when ex-gang member Tony accidentally kills Maria’s brother while (ironically) trying to prevent further escalation between the Jets and the Sharks. The story ends when a desperately remorseful Tony is killed trying to avenge what he’s falsely led to believe is Maria’s murder. Maria sees the love of her young life murdered right before her eyes, and her innocence is shattered on the altar of racism and gang violence. With the revolutionary late 1960s right around the corner, and an all-too-real escalation of gang violence across the US, 1961’s “West Side Story” quickly became dated, and its bizarre depiction of Puerto Ricans (largely non-Hispanic actors in brown-face makeup) remains an embarrassing anachronism in an otherwise classic, beloved film. Despite the accolades and affection showered upon the film, there are diehard fans who admit that time hasn’t been very kind to it.

Rita Morena wearing exaggerated brown makeup for the 1961 version vs. co-producer/costar Moreno as she appears in the 2021 version.

An authentic Puerto Rican in the original main cast was Oscar-winner Rita Moreno as “Anita”, the girlfriend of murdered gang leader Bernardo (George Chakiris). Moreno herself recalls in interviews how she was slathered in “mud”-like makeup. The actors playing Puerto Ricans in the movie looked more like 1960s-era Klingons from the original Star Trek.

Today, the 90-year old Moreno gets a chance to revisit the film as both costar and producer for director Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake–whose release was delayed a year due to the ongoing COVID pandemic. Debuting around Christmas of last year, 2021’s “West Side Story” made a disappointing $74 million in worldwide box office. Yes, it certainly underperformed, but it was also released during a nasty COVID spike, and it didn’t feature a guy in a rubber suit tirelessly beating up never-ending waves of computer-generated robots…

Before I get into the breakdown and final summary, I gotta say that Spielberg’s version greatly exceeded my expectations. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, coming from the same man who gave the world JAWS” (1975), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Schindler’s List” (1993), to name but a few.

Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” 2021.

Returning to Spielberg’s team is his longtime cinematographer Janus Kaminski, whom he’s worked with many times since 1993’s “Schindler’s List.” Immediately, the camera shows an era-appropriate depiction of 1957 New York, using a mix of practical locations and digital augmentation. Beginning with aerial shots that give homage to Wise’s 1961 film, I was concerned Kaminski was going to use his trademark color desaturation, but the movie soon embraces bolder, Broadway-style colors in a big way.

Note: In the original film, director Wise exploited the then-construction site for NYC’s Lincoln Center as a symbol of gentrification threatening the territories of the rival gangs. In this new version, that long gone pile of rubble is faithfully recreated. The attention to period detail in the 2021 version is so vivid in fact, that it sort of ‘out-1950s’ the 1957-set original. I was also amazed by just how period-faithful the movie’s young cast of Millennials & Gen-Zs look; none of them appears to have ever touched an iPhone or laptop in their lives…

The Jets, led by Mike Faist as leader “Riff” (center), along with fellow Jets Sean Harrison Jones, Jess LeProto, Kyle Allen, Kevin Csolak (“Diesel”), Miles Erlich (“Snowboy”), Patrick Higgins (“Baby John”), Garrett Hawe (“Skink”) and Kyle Coffman (“Ice”).

Leonard Bernstein’s familiar music cues up, along with the finger-snapping of the mischievous Jets, led by “Riff” (Mike Faist), and his crew, “Diesel” (Kevin Csolak), “Skink” (Garrett Hawe), “Ice” (Kyle Coffman), and newly-minted Jet, “Baby John” (Patrick Higgins), along with several others. As in the original, the Jets are on a mission to vandalize some Puerto Rican territory they believe to be encroaching on their turf. Their painting spree is broken up by the rival Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, led by smalltime boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his crew, including “Quique” (Julius Rubio), “Braulio” (Sebastian Serra), and wannabe-member “Chino” (Josh Andres Rivera) among others. Chino is a quiet, bespectacled kid who is nursing a crush on Bernardo’s kid sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler). The brief turf war is soon broken up by the local fuzz, including Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll, of “First Man”) and beat cop, Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James). Not surprisingly, neither of the cops seem overly sensitive to the plight of the young toughs…

Note: A few welcome revisions. First, the Puerto Rican characters are now depicted more authentically in greater variety of skin tones, and not the uniform brown greasepaint worn by the original cast. Secondly, much more screen time is now given to developing backstories for the Sharks, whereas the 1961 film involuntarily gravitated more towards the Jets–not surprising, considering the era in which the original was born. The women characters of both gangs are also given more screen time, as well. Another very significant change is that we finally hear the Puerto Rican characters speaking (and singing) in Spanish for a few non-subtitled scenes. Fortunately for anglophones, the actors make very clear the intent of those scenes through facial expressions and body language, along with occasional familiar words and phrases as well.

Anita (Ariana deBose) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) enjoy the good times…while they last.

Sharks leader Bernardo is living with his longtime girlfriend Anita (Ariana deBose), who is like an older sister to the idealistic young Maria, with whom she works as part of a nighttime cleaning crew in a large department store. Maria is anxious over the evening’s school dance, and is nervous about her date with Chino. Anita gives the young woman a pep talk–and her bright red belt–as they prepare for their big night.

Note: Bernardo and Anita’s place, while clearly represented as a small apartment in a bad neighborhood, is brimming with bright fabrics from Anita’s other part-time gig as a seamstress–which are also used as partitions within their home. Cinematographer Kaminski and production designer Adam Stockhausen embrace the full spectrum of color for this film. An earlier dance number in the streets of Brooklyn (“America”) is also rich in Broadway-style flavor and zeal.

Original cast member and co-producer Rita Moreno returns to play new character “Valentina”, the widow of gringo Doc, the drugstore owner from the original film.

We also see the situation of former Jets leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) trying to live on the straight and narrow after being released from prison following a gang fight where he nearly killed another teen in a vicious fight. Tony has since disavowed gang life, and is living in the back storeroom of his kindly employer, Valentina (Rita Moreno). Valentina is the widow of the store’s former owner Doc–a gringo, like Tony, with whom she enjoyed a long loving marriage. The kindness of Puerto Rican Valentina has been a factor in Tony’s reeducation. She, in turn, believes in the young man’s potential, showing him trust and respect, despite his checkered past. Tony is invited to the evening’s dance by his friend and former gang brother, Riff, who also tries to entice Tony into rejoining his old crew, but without success…

Note: Valentina is an important new character created for the 2021 film, taking the place of the original film’s caucasian storekeeper “Doc” (Ned Glass). Introducing Valentina as Doc’s widow acknowledges the legacy of his character while adding a new element which enhances the overall story. Making the charitable Valentina Puerto Rican also gives young Tony an appreciation and insight into her culture (including learning Spanish in his spare time) that makes his imminent relationship with Maria feel a bit more plausible than a racist white punk suddenly falling head-over-heels for a Latina. Valentina, through her relationship with the late Doc, is a living reminder that love can unite cultural differences.

Dirty Dancing.
Tension at the school dance between the Jets and the Sharks…

The night of the big school dance, and the Jets and Sharks both make the scene. A largely-ineffectual school administrator tries to calm the tensions between the kids, encouraging them to dance ‘nicely,’ and have a good time. Maria arrives with Chino, while Tony, despite his own earlier reluctance, arrives as well. The choreography within the school dance is a bit more fluid (both in execution and cinematography) than what was seen in the Robert Wise version–which was choreographed by Jerome Robbins himself.

Note: While some of Stephen Sondheim’s original song lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s musical score are subtly modified for the new film, none of it is to the 2021 remake’s detriment. For example, a disparaging lyric about Puerto Rico “sinking” in the street dance song “America” earlier on is changed to reflect more pride in the Sharks’ heritage. Maria’s famous “I Feel So Pretty” (rearranged to come much later in the 2021 version) omits the words “… so pretty, and gay,” since the word ‘gay’ is, of course, more commonly associated with the LGBTQ+ community these days. Once again, these are subtle changes that don’t detract from the original intent of the story, which itself began as a loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) steal a dance under the bleachers.

It’s during the fateful dance that Tony first sees the angelic young Maria, and it’s truly love at first sight for these two, with Maria completely ignoring her date Chino. Stealing a moment away from prying eyes and ears, Maria and Tony make time for each other under the gymnasium bleachers, where they share a private dance. That moment of theirs is soon destroyed when word spreads, and the two would-be lovers are broken up by their respective ‘chaperones’…

Note: An interesting update to Tony’s backstory makes him a bit more of a ‘bad boy’ than the unrealistically nobler version seen in the 1961 version. 2021’s Tony has actually done a year in the joint for nearly killing a member of the Sharks with his bare hands. As with making this version of Tony a bit less wholesome, the overall language in this adaptation–written by screenwriter Tony Kushner–is a bit saltier as well, peppered lightly with occasional curse words to give it a more realistic edge (yes, folks…people actually used four-letter words in the 1950s). Fortunately, screenwriter Kushner has done his job well; his altered dialogue dovetails nicely with Robbins’ original play, while maintaining its period-appropriate flavor.

Oh, just get a room, you two…
Riff and Bernardo clash over what to do about Tony.

Bernardo is furious that his kid sister would make time with the gringo ex-convict Tony, while Riff jumps in to defend his ex-leader and friend. Tony and Maria’s innocent dance together very quickly becomes an excuse for the escalating tensions between the Sharks and Jets to reach critical mass. Not wanting to get in trouble or ruin the rest of the dance, the two gang leaders agree to meet later, and make plans for an all-out war.

Note: While the scenes of romance, home life and festivities are bold and colorful (such as the “America” street sequence and the school dance), the scenes where the gangs get down to the business of war are more desaturated in their color palette. Joy = color, animosity = less color. Director Spielberg and DP Kaminski communicate through color almost in the same way that humans and extraterrestrials communicated through musical phrases in Spielberg’s own “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Right out of the Bard: An fire escape in NYC becomes Juliet’s balcony–just as Jerome Robbins reimagined back in 1961.

A lovestruck Tony celebrates his newfound love in a faithful re-staging of the character’s fire escape ballad, “Maria.” The two clandestine lovebirds make plans to see each other the following day, meeting secretly at a subway station. After their declaration of love, Maria wakes up the following morning–still wearing her white dress (and Anita’s red belt) from the dance. In the comical scene that follows, Maria does her best to look as if she just woke up; including a quick change into a dowdy bathrobe, followed by an emergency ratting of hair and makeup removal. Needless to say, Roberto and Anita aren’t terribly pleased with Maria’s choice of dance partners…

Note: The 2021 version of the fire escape meeting between Tony and Maria looks right out of the Broadway and 1961 versions. The fire escape most faithfully recalls the original Shakespearean inspiration–the scene of Juliet on her balcony, secretly exchanging words with Romeo, who gazes up at her from the Capulet’s garden. Spielberg clearly understands the iconic impact and importance of this scene, and leaves it largely intact.

Same character, different pronoun.
Iris Menas expands upon the parameters of the “Anybodys” character in the 2021 version.

As Tony spends a romantic afternoon around the city with his newfound love Maria, rumors of a forthcoming gang war between the Jets and the Sharks filter down to Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke. As a result, many of the Jets are hauled down to the police station for questioning, including the Jets’ one trans-male member, the character known as “Anybodys” (Iris Menas). Anybodys was the “tomboy” (i.e. queer) character from the original Jerome Robbins’ play. Loosely based on the gossiping servant Balthazar from “Romeo and Juliet,” Anybodys acts as the Jets’ useful scout, possessing a unique gift for stealth and intelligence gathering. The character’s role is somewhat expanded in this version, given a scene of great anguish when humiliated by Lt. Schrank, who deliberately chooses to mislabel Anybodys as a ‘girl,’ prompting the character to lash out by shouting, “I’m no goddamn girl!”

With none of the Jets seemingly willing to snitch, the police are left in the dark.

Note: I can already see the backlash from those who will mistakenly believe that Anybodys was a trans-male character added to the 2021 version for “woke” relevance. Well, that’s simply not true. Anyone (including myself) who’s seen the 1961 version knows that Anybodys (then played by Susan Oakes) was clearly identifying as male in that version as well. The only difference is that this new version of Anybodys is now played by non-binary actor Iris Menas, who gives the character an extra layer of passion and authenticity lacking in the 1961 version.

Give peace a chance.
Riff and Tony fight over both the gun and the rumble itself.

Assuming the Sharks are going to bring arms to their gangland war later that night, Riff decides to illegally purchase a gun from an Irish-American dealer. Tony, trying his best to call off the gang war, confronts his former crew in a desperate attempt to make them to call the whole thing off, or at least confiscate Riff’s gun. He is unsuccessful on both counts, and the war is still on for later that night.

Note: The dance number between the Jets and Tony as they play an elaborate game of “keep away” with the gun is downright exhilarating, using creaky plank boards and other dangerous-looking location set dressing in a sequence that almost plays like a street-ballet version of parkour. Most of the young actors in the film were already professional dancers before they were cast.

The overlapping shadows of the warring Jets and Sharks leaves a pool of darkness in the middle; a fitting metaphor.

The Jets and the Sharks meet at the agreed upon location; a ‘salt shed’ warehouse; its mounds of sodium loosely approximating a hilly battlefield backdrop from North Africa or the Middle East. An appropriate site for a war…

Note: As the gangs meet, they are both back-lit from external light sources, making them cast long dark shadows that create a pool of darkness in the middle–I’ve rarely seen a more fitting metaphor for war; a tangled mass of darkness–only growing in size as the hate-filled opponents march ever closer. Spielberg is also one of the few remaining big-name directors who still insists on shooting with 35mm film, and the gorgeously textural results speak for themselves. So help me, if Janus Kaminski doesn’t get an Oscar for Best Cinematography, I’ll scream.

The salt shed makes a fitting last stand for a bitter feud.

Not wanting to attract the cops, both sides agree to turn off the lights within the shed. With the color once again toned down, this scene bristles with gritty, palpable tension. Bernardo’s anger sears like a brand upon Tony… the gringo who refuses to stop seeing his kid sister. After Tony does his best to talk him down, the war begins. Bernardo, a professional boxer, delivers punches, bloodying Tony’s once pretty face. Despite his height advantage, Tony does his best not to return or even block the blows, knowing that the professional boxer may very well be his prospective brother-in-law someday. Tony is also acutely aware of keeping his own anger and rage in check, knowing he nearly killed someone once with his bare fists once, and is just as dangerous as Bernardo, if unleashed…

Boxer Bernardo, flanked by sharks “Braulio” (Sebastian Serra) and “Quique” (Julius Rubio) prepares to throw down.

The rumble turns fatal as Riff intervenes on his friend Tony’s behalf and is stabbed in the chest by Bernardo. Gasping out his last to Tony, he dies on the floor of the gritty salt shed. Blinded by rage, Tony lashes out to avenge his friend by pulling the dagger from the Riff’s freshly dead chest and plunging it into a disbelieving Bernardo–who is still reeling over killing Riff, and is caught off guard by the swiftness of Tony’s attack. With Riff and Bernardo left dead on the shack floor, the rumble is over. The blue and red flashes of police lights shine through the windows outside. As the gangs hurriedly disperse, Chino quietly picks up Riff’s gun before fleeing. Chino has payback on his mind–both for his friend Bernardo, and his own seething jealousy over Maria ditching him for Tony at the dance…

Note: Yes, I’d seen the original, and yes, I knew what was coming next, but the power of the scene remained as potent as if I were seeing the story unfold for the very first time. Given other minor liberties taken with the film up to this point, I was also wondering if perhaps Spielberg and screenwriter Kushner were saving bigger changes for the climax of the story.

“I Feel Pretty.”
Maria sings to Anita and their overnight cleaning crew, in a differently placed scene that now breaks the tension of the gang war.

After the grimness and tragedy of the rumble, the story cuts incongruously to the lovestruck Maria and Anita, working with the overnight cleaning crew at the department store. It’s here where Maria sings her signature song, “I Feel So Pretty”, as she dances among the elaborate store displays and well-appointed mannequins of retail days past. At this point in the story, Maria is utterly oblivious to the fact that the man she loves is now a murderer, and that the man he’s killed is her own brother, as well as Anita’s lover.

Note: The famed Sondheim ballad “I Feel So Pretty” is placed somewhat later in this version of the film, where it now serves as a final moment of frivolity and innocence before a harsh new reality encroaches.

Maria and Anita both receive news of what’s happened. A devastated Anita goes to the morgue to identify Bernardo’s body, and a grieving Maria is visited through her bedroom window by a deeply remorseful Tony, who vows to turn himself over to the police. Still deeply in love with this man who murdered her brother, Maria can’t let him go. Coming home from the coroner, Anita catches Tony in her home, and he wisely flees. Angrily confronting Maria, Anita tells her that she can’t ever forgive Tony, and that if Maria still loves him, she’d better leave as well…

Note: Despite the fact that this is a musical, the sight of Bernardo and Riff’s dead bodies in the morgue is every bit as realistic and intense as anything you’d see in a David Fincher movie. Spielberg doesn’t pull his punches, nor does he sugarcoat death. Anyone who doubts this need only watch “Schindler’s List.”

Maria is glad to see Tony alive, though her joy is short-lived…

Things go from bad to worse when Anita goes looking for Tony at Doc’s drugstore, where she is nearly gang-raped by the Jets. Begged to stop by their own girlfriends, the Jets are only called off by the appearance of Valentina, whom they respect for giving Tony shelter and a job. In the quiet that follows, the full ugliness of their actions begin to sink in. Meanwhile, Chino still has the gun, and he plans to lure Tony out by having Anybodys plant a rumor that he’s killed Maria…

An anguished Tony hears and believes the false news that Chino’s murdered Maria, and is devastated. Initially planning to run away with Maria, he instead runs out into the streets and screams for Chino to come and finish him off. In the late darkness of the streets, a confused but overjoyed Tony sees Maria running up to him, smiling, and carrying a suitcase. As the lovers rush to reunite, Chino pulls out the gun–shooting Tony several times. Tony, the love of Maria’s young life, dies in her arms. The rival gang members soon arrive, and surround the grieving Maria as she picks up Chino’s discarded gun, threatening to shoot them all or even herself, until the matronly Valentina comes along and walks the traumatized Maria and Anita away from the tragic scene…

Note: Unlike Juliet, who meekly joined Romeo in suicide, Maria’s innocence is that other casualty of “West Side Story.” The doe-eyed girl who loved Tony, even after he confessed to killing her brother, doesn’t exist anymore.

The End.

Summing It Up.

Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (2021) offers the best of both worlds–a modern remake crafted by a veteran filmmaker with plenty of respect for the original, but with enough objectivity to see room for improvement as well. No doubt having original cast member Rita Moreno serving as costar and producer was instrumental in this regard. Spielberg was part of the 1970s ‘new wave’ of auteurs who changed filmmaking forever (George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, et al). Now the director has come full circle by re-telling an old-fashioned story using old-fashioned techniques, while never resorting to gimmickry.

Producer/star Rita Moreno and director Steven Spielberg bring reverence and old Hollywood feeling to their version.

Some language, lyrics and other minor details have been subtly changed to give the film a bit more authenticity, but the meticulous attention to late 1950s period detail makes the whole production feel somewhat ‘old Hollywood,’ while maintaining relevance.  Janus Kaminski’s lush 35 mm cinematography and smart use of color is almost another character in the story itself. Spielberg’s self-designed end title sequence is a gorgeous collection of stills that fans of older movies will appreciate. Spielberg has learned a lot about making musicals since the days of 1991’s “Hook,” and his “West Side Story” very much deserves an audience.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is a dazzling, clever updating of the 1961 classic, which both equals and improves on it in many ways.

Where To Watch/Stay Safe

“West Side Story” (2021) is still in theatrical release, and can also be streamed on DisneyPlus and HBOMax. With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverence, and that this hideous aggression ends sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 955,000 (over six million worldwide) as of this writing, so use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections.

In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong!

All images: 20th Century Studios, Disney+, CNN, MGM/UA/Sony

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