When it was first announced that Steven Spielberg was remaking “West Side Story” I was stunned. Why would one of the most respected and creative directors alive choose to do a remake of a beloved movie that won more Oscars than any other musical? Out of all the announced remakes and reboots, this seemed to be one of the most pointless. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Spielberg‘s best work has always been on projects that are close to his heart. “Ready Player One” was fine, but it was his “The Shining” segment, which wasn’t in the book, that really stood out. His passion for a subject unlocks the creative spirit he is most respected for. With that in mind, he must really love “West Side Story.” His interpretation of the musical is heavily influenced by the original movie but follows the Broadway show more closely. Songs that were rearranged for the 1961 film have been returned to their original sequence, but with the freedom of a modern budget, he’s drastically expanded the locations these performances play out. These additional locations aren’t just for the sake of grandeur, they actively enhance the narrative. When Tony (Ansel Elgort) takes Maria (Rachel Zegler) on their first date, he’s able to take her to a beautiful place that actually means something to his character. (As opposed to the back room of a department store.)
The 2021 version also benefits from Spielberg‘s storytelling expertise. He takes the time to round out some narrative jumps and even fleshes out the main characters more than they already are. One inspired choice is changing the character of Doc to Doc’s widow, Valentina, a Puerto Rican woman. Doc did his best to look out for Tony and was a bit of a mentor, but the guidance works so much better when it’s coming from a woman who had already lived through a happy interracial marriage. The best part of this character change is Valentina is played by Rita Moreno, who was the first Latina woman to win an Oscar. The win was for her portrayal of Anita in the original film. The other casting changes are more obvious, such as actually casting Latin actors in all the Latin roles.
One could spend hours discussing all the unique choices Spielberg has made but what it really comes down to is this movie is absolutely perfect. The cast, singing, music, camera movements, art direction, lighting, everything is perfect. It’s not just a remake, it’s a beautiful movie that both elevates and honors the originals.
West Side Story (2021)