Steven Spielberg has made over 30 feature films since his acclaimed low-budget debut in 1971’s Duel. Since then, he has explored different kinds of genres throughout his illustrious career ranging from thriller to sci-fi, action-adventure, war and historical drama. But surprisingly enough, one of the genres that he has yet to cover is musical and it finally took him this long to add one to his filmography.
That musical in question turns out to be West Side Story, a remake of the 1961’s Oscar-winning film of the same name, both of which are adapted from the 1957 Broadway production. While it’s interesting to see how Spielberg would fare in his first musical, I initially figured why bother remake the already-great 1961 film anyway? I love the 1961 version and to me, it was among the best musicals I’ve ever seen other than An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1954), just to name a few. Remaking such a beloved classic is like a suicide mission and anyone who decided to take on the challenge is going to be an uphill task one way or another.
Spielberg’s version remains more or less the same as the Broadway production and the 1961 feature-length adaptation, where the film takes place in 1950s New York City. Two notorious street gangs nicknamed the Jets and the Puerto Rican-based Sharks led by Riff (Mike Faist) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) respectively have long been bitter rivals. And in the midst of their rivalry, there’s Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jets who recently got out of prison and start afresh working for an elderly store owner, Valentina (Rita Moreno, the Oscar-winning star who play Maria in the 1961 film).
One night while attending a dance, Tony falls in love with Bernardo’s younger sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler) when they first lay eyes on each other. Not surprisingly, Bernardo isn’t fond of seeing both of them together since he already finds her a suitor, which turns out to be his best friend, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera).
Spielberg’s West Side Story gets off to a promising start with a nifty combination of long take and aerial shots, complete with the familiar whistles and finger snaps before Mike Faist’s Riff and the rest of his gang members start performing “Jet Song”, as they sing and dance while roaming around the neighbourhood. Some of his past films, namely Jaws (1975) and others like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) are renowned for his signature opening scenes. The kind that captures our attention and immerses us straight into the stories. And in West Side Story, that’s exactly how I felt upon watching the film’s opening moments. Of course, for the sake of comparison, I still prefer the 1961 version’s iconic opening scene, which remains unsurpassed even after I revisited the film recently.
Subsequent musical sequences are expertly choreographed with equal verve and passion, notably the exuberant and colourful “Dance at the Gym” and “America”, thanks to Spielberg’s dynamic camera work. Janusz Kaminski’s Technicolor-style cinematography helps too, which evokes the lavish look and feel of the 1961 version and so does Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn’s sharp editing. Adam Stockhausen’s elaborate production design, in the meantime, vividly recreating the nostalgic look of the 1950s New York City neighbourhood.
Tony Kushner, who previously wrote Spielberg’s Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012), does a good job retaining the thematic elements of its source material — the ill-fated romance between Tony and Maria, class struggle as well as racial tension and prejudice. The latter two is where Kushner excels the most, even to the point he manages to improve upon the 1961 version. Here, he delves deeper into the two aforesaid themes rather than just glossing them over in a superficial level of storytelling, addressing the conflicts between the two rival gangs (the Jets and Sharks) with different ethnic backgrounds. This, in turn, gives the musical an added dramatic flair.
As much as I love the 1961 version, the film suffers from the lack of accurate or authentic depiction of Latinx representation (i.e. most of the actors who played the Sharks gang members have to wear brownface makeup to make them look like Puerto Ricans). Spielberg thankfully doesn’t repeat the same mistake in his 2021 version, where he manages to do justice by casting race-appropriate actors for the aforementioned roles. If that’s not enough, he even goes as far as allowing them to speak around 30-40% of subtitle-less dialogues in Spanish.
Kudos also goes to Spielberg for assembling a largely unknown cast and bringing out the best in their performances, both in acting and singing. Rachel Zegler, soon to be seen in Shazam! Fury of the Gods in 2023 and Ariana DeBose, who play Maria and Bernardo’s feisty girlfriend, Anita respectively steal most of the shows here. David Alvarez and Mike Faist both deserve equal mentions here as Bernardo and Riff. Screen veteran Rita Moreno, who plays storeowner Valentina — a new character specially created for the 2021 version — brings warmth and integrity to her overall solid supporting turn.
While I’m glad the otherwise unnecessary remake of West Side Story turns out to be an above-average effort after all, the film does have its few setbacks. The onscreen romance between Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler somehow lack a strong sense of charm and emotion, which mostly has to do with Elgort’s stiff and hollow lead performance as Tony. It was kind of a pity from the way he plays the role, even though he’s good at both singing and dancing. Then, there’s the frequent use of lens flare every now and then as if Spielberg tries to emulate one of J.J. Abrams’ filmmaking styles.
Some of the shortcomings aside, Steven Spielberg’s overall first foray into the musical genre in West Side Story remake continues to prove why he remains among the best and most versatile filmmakers even today.