Robert Wise’s 1961 film, West Side Story, is the perfect Shakespeare adaptation.
It builds on the original story of Romeo and Juliet while crafting a timeless, modern narrative of its own. The heartfelt tragedy of Tony, a white gangster, falling in love with Maria, the sister of a rival Puerto Rican gangster, brings the emotional power of the original story to light while tying in modern themes such as the American dream and racism. The music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim takes you through the whole emotional spectrum, and for many people, like myself, West Side Story was our introduction to Shakespeare. Remaking this classic film is an incredible challenge, even though the original’s themes are relevant today. Still, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner delivered, revitalizing West Side Story for a new era with their marvelous remake.
The new West Side Story keeps the 1950’s setting and the overarching conflict between the white gang, the Jets, and the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, from the original but modernizes its tone. The cinematography is darker and grainier; even the fight scenes hit harder with real blood among the violence. The colors pop when needed, especially during the more romantic scenes, but Spielberg dedicated himself to a more grounded approach to the material, and it worked well. A key component to his modernization is updating the racial themes while using contemporary issues like gentrification as a backdrop to the story. His use of gentrification effectively informs the desperation and anger of the Jets and the Sharks, as both communities see their homes crumbling around them. Spielberg tries to tackle other modern political issues, like misogyny and transphobia, but they feel tacked on, never as deeply explored as they should’ve been.
Spielberg especially succeeded at making the story feel modern from the perspective of modern youth, which is the primary goal of any Romeo & Juliet adaptation. Director Harley Granville Barker famously described Romeo & Juliet as “a tragedy of youth as youth sees it,” it was meant to be from the perspective of the youth of its era, and by extension, the era of when an adaptation was made. Being from the youth’s perspective justifies and enhances the grand emotions of the story. It’s an element that the original West Side Story, plus other great adaptations like Romeo+Juliet and Tromeo & Juliet, understood; they captured the youth of their time. Spielberg recognized that idea for his remake of West Side Story in probably the darkest way possible. Modern teenagers are growing up in incredibly tough times, both politically and existentially, in the wake of COVID, Donald Trump, global warming, class warfare, school shootings, the rise of white nationalism, etc. I could imagine many teenagers today feeling like they’re growing up in a world slowly crumbling around them. Spielberg’s west side is literally crumbling and bursting at the seams, encapsulating the failures and greed of the older generations, and how the youth of today are suffering because of it. These dark set pieces work as a perfect contrast to the ray of light beaming from Tony and Marie’s romance, with their love acting as rebellion from the anxiety.
The choreography and music were excellent as Spielberg makes the city feel alive during the musical numbers. The stellar choreography married to his excellent staging of particular extras makes New York feel real among the musical numbers. I loved watching the musical numbers and seeing how individual background extras react like real New Yorkers, either getting annoyed or seeing where a musical number is going. Spielberg rearranges the order of the few songs, and they do work, complimenting his faster pacing. Spielberg changed a few of the iconic dance numbers in ways I liked, scaling them back to make them more intimate.
My favorite aspect of West Side Story is its use of language. There’s a lot of unsubtitled Spanish in the film, as Spielberg dares his non-Spanish speaking American audience, like me, to infer and empathize with the Puerto Rican characters without fully knowing the language. It’s effective at making us both understand the conflict between white Americans and Puerto Ricans and try to grow alongside them. Language is a big sticking point in the film, as the Sharks are regularly told to speak English, which they rarely do, feeling a stronger bond with each other through their shared Spanish. For me, the most romantic moment in the film was a split second where Tony understood Maria’s Spanish without needing a translation. There was this spark where they were both genuinely connected despite speaking different languages. He tried to learn Spanish phrases for Maria, but he still understood her when it counted, even though he didn’t speak Spanish.
West Side Story features many standout performances, most of which work great with the music and choreography. The supporting cast is all excellent. Ariana DeBose is radiant as Anita, Maria’s friend and girlfriend of Shark’s leader, Bernardo, as she injects fire and charisma into every line of dialogue. Mike Faist as Riff, the leader of the Jets, is both hilarious and intimidating, as he comes off as a damaged gangster who’s seen it all and done it all, to the point where he feels he’s too far gone. We get to see Rita Moreno come back to West Side Story, this time as Valentina, a shopkeeper who employs Tony. She’s charming, funny, and incredibly passionate, really acting as the heart of the film.
Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler have great chemistry together as Tony and Maria. I immediately bought the two as being blindly in love in a romantic, teenager kind of way. Between the two, the weakest link was Ansel Elgort as Tony. His performance is fine, as he sells the boyish charm while using his sheer physicality and size to hint at an aggressive past. However, his singing lacks the power needed in a few numbers. The real stand out of the film is Rachel Zegler as Maria. She’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant as Maria. Her performance is excellent, displaying her innocence while not making it her defining feature, keeping a natural edge and recklessness that you’d expect from a cooped-up teenager. Her singing is incredible, injecting so much heart and power into every note. West Side Story was Zegler’s film debut, and she’s going to be a rising star after this film.
Spielberg’s West Side Story is an exceptional film that reminds audiences of how tragic and dark the story truly is. I appreciate Spielberg’s confidence in giving his version of West Side Story its own identity. It stands on its own and demonstrates how the film is still relevant today. I still prefer the original, but to write off Spielberg’s take would be a grave mistake. It’s an exceptional film that could’ve only come from someone who genuinely loved the original.