Did We Really Need a Remake of “West Side Story”?

Over 60 years ago, the film “West Side Story” was released to much acclaim, earning 10 Oscars including for Best Picture.

Now, famed director Steven Spielberg has made a remake of the classic Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical, directed by Robert Wise, and one of the finest movies ever done based on a popular Broadway musical.

If any other filmmaker did this, I would have shunned the film.  But I can’t not see a Spielberg movie so I went ahead and saw it.

Overall, I liked it and thought Spielberg did a wonderful job.  He has the rare gift of knowing how to photograph a musical, a job often botched by modern film directors, by framing the full length of the dancers so the audience can take in all the movements.  And I loved the way the opening and closing credits were designed using cityscapes.

Still, as I exited the theater, I was left with the same question I had when I first read he was doing this:  why do it?

Several changes have been made for the 2021 version:  all actors are cast based on their ethnicity, the scenes with solely Puerto Rican actors are spoken in Spanish, the role of Doc has been replaced with his wife Valentina, and the backstories of Tony and Bernardo have been changed. 

Some of these changes are fine while others aren’t.  For example, the idea of casting 89-year-old Rita Moreno (who won Best Supporting Actress in 1961 as Anita) as the new character Valentina was inspired.  First, it makes a beautiful connection to the original film.  Second, giving her “Somewhere” to sing instead of Maria and Tony deepens the call for tolerance, not only for the main characters but for all couples who have mixed heritage including her late husband, a beautiful coda to Moreno’s film career.  It is the emotional epicenter of the film.

Less successful was the new information that Tony was in a jail for a year for almost killing a man.  And now Bernardo is a boxer.  Both of these backstories muddle the plot.

While the dancing in the new film is quite good, it doesn’t match the Jerome Robbins’ choreography of the original.  I was most disappointed with how much critics have raved about the 2021’s dancing.  It made me wonder when was the last time these critics saw the Jerome Robbins’ choreography or the athleticism of many of the dancers especially Russ Tamblyn?  Critics should know their history.

While I thought the dancing in the new version was good overall, the “America” number being a highlight, I was more impressed with Spielberg’s use of intimate tracking shots which made the dances more exhilarating than they were.

The weakest scene in the new version is the most critical scene in the musical:  the student dance where Tony and Maria first meet.  In Wise’s version it is quite magical and dreamlike, with vibrant colors.  In Spielberg’s version it is unremarkable behind the bleachers with too much talking.

Neither version casted Tony with an actor that is memorable which I found odd since that was usually the one blemish often mentioned (besides the fact that Natalie Wood’s singing was dubbed) was Richard Beymer’s blandness.  For me, Ansel Elgort is too slight of an improvement to make much of an impact.

And while in today’s times a major deal is made about casting Maria with a Puerto Rican actress, to me nothing compares to the charm of Wood.

If there was no earlier version of this musical until now, I would be more enthusiastic about this version.  I wish Spielberg would try his hand at another musical, but one that wasn’t already made into a movie.