I remember when I first heard about this remake, I couldn’t quite understand what they were going to add by redoing it. The original is a widely-acclaimed classic — why remake it? I should’ve remembered one of the golden rules of cinema: always trust Spielberg.
If you’re somehow unfamiliar with West Side Story, it’s a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, with the two warring families replaced by two warring street gangs. Although the teenage love story is still present, obv., the strength here is more in its depiction of cultural clashes between different groups of immigrants — essentially, the heart of the American experience. Like most musicals, it started out on the stage before being filmed in 1961. I’m not going to dispute the classic status of that film, but it has dated — most problematically in the use of brown face to depict Puerto Rican characters, but also in its overall style, which, though shot in part on the real streets of New York, is quite stagey. Plus it made various changes to the original work, primarily in the order and therefore context of multiple musical numbers; something that Spielberg, as a fan of the stage production, sort to restore.
In short, it worked. Well, I’ve never seen the stage production, so I don’t know if this film is more faithful to it, but it feels like a superior execution of the constituent elements. Primarily, it deepens some of the characters and their motives, most especially Tony (the Romeo figure) and Chino (his ostensible love rival, though you’d be forgiven for missing that entirely in the ’61 film). In the original film, I almost felt like Tony and Maria were a subplot, only being regarded as the leads because they’re Romeo and Juliet in what we know is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Here, they get more screen time, both together and apart, and more shades to their characters, so it actually feels like they’re the leads. That doesn’t suddenly make them the most interesting characters, but you can’t have everything.
This added depth comes from the screenplay as much as the performances, which were great in the original but are fantastic here too. The Oscar-winning turn by Ariana DeBose as Anita is indeed the standout, but Rachel Zegler is perfectly sweet as Maria, and Rita Moreno thankfully has more to offer than just a tribute cameo in the Doc role. There was a lot of talk that Mike Faist was snubbed by awards for his Riff. He’s good, but doesn’t quite equal Russ Tambyln for me. The weak link is clearly Ansel Elgort as Tony. I had wondered if people were just saying that because of the allegations against him, but he’s not ideal for the role. That said, I do think he’s adequate, and the only reason to find his presence actively distasteful is if you can’t set aside the real-life stories.
All these comparisons are inevitable, and it’s mostly in the eye of the beholder which individual aspect is better in which version; but I think it’s undeniable that Spielberg’s film looks more cinematic. It’s not just superior to the ’61 film, but a masterclass in itself: the lighting, the shot composition, the camera moves, the blocking; several songs are more excitingly staged than in the original, not least arguably the most famous, America. DoP Janusz Kaminski has been doing sterling work with Spielberg for decades now, so perhaps it’s easy to overlook just how talented they both are. In an era when mega-budgeted films increasingly look like TV shows that lean on green screen to scrape by, this is Cinema at its purest.
Perhaps that’s why, overall, I prefer this version. Sure, the original is a classic, but Spielberg’s film is ultimately more cinematic (less stage-minded), less campy (though it doesn’t entirely ditch that aspect), and more modern, but appropriately so (with race-appropriate casting instead of awkward brownface). It’s perhaps proof that any remake can be worthwhile if done for the right reasons by the right people.