Movie review: Spielberg's 'West Side Story' vs 1961 film

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 17 2022 12:55 PM

A scene from Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story'
A scene from Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story'

It was the mid-1950s in Manhattan's Upper West Side district, which was about to be torn down to be developed into the new Lincoln Center. Two rival gangs ruled the streets -- the white Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) versus the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). One night at a local dance, Tony (Ansel Elgort), Jets co-founder just out on parole, met Bernardo's sister Maria (Rachel Zegler), and they both fell in love at first sight. However, their respective gangs simply could not allow this union, leading to violent tragedy. 

"West Side Story" was originally conceived as a stage musical by choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, transporting the story of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" to the world of feuding teenage gangs on streets of New York City, with a book by Arthur Laurents and music by Leonard Bernstein. The lyrics were by icon Stephen Sondheim, then only in his mid-20s. The original 1957 Broadway production ran for more than 700 performances and won 2 Tony awards, including Best Choreography for Robbins.

In 1961, the stage musical was adapted for the big screen, with directorial credits shared by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. This film won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and a special one for Robbins' choreography. Tony and Maria were played by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, with their singing voices by Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon. Bernardo and Anita were played by George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, both winning Oscars for their supporting turns. The soundtrack album remained at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts for 54 weeks. 

The 1961 film and soundtrack album had been an integral part of my youth. I could say that I knew the order of the scenes. the ebullient dance choreography, and the beautiful songs by hearts. I have to admit that ever since news came out that Steven Spielberg will be coming out with a remake, I already had my mind made up that it may not be a good idea. Even then, as a lover of musical theater and films, of course I had to go watch it. I wanted to see what Spielberg could still do to improve what I thought was already a perfect film.

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The triple-threat performances were generally excellent -- Rachel Zegler (only 17 years old in her film debut) as a more outspoken Maria, Ariana DeBose ("The Prom," "Schmigadoon") as proud Anita, David Alvarez (Tony Award winner at age 14 for "Billy Elliot" in 2009) as passionate Bernardo and Mike Faist ("Newsies," "Dear Evan Hansen") as toxic Riff. Rita Moreno is back in a new role as Valentina, widow of Doc, who gets to sing a stripped-down version of "Somewhere." Ansel Elgort did not work for me as Tony. I did not feel that he had romantic chemistry with Zegler nor much sincerity from his flat performance overall.

Aside from ethnic accuracy, it was great that the new actors all sing their own songs. The best song and dance number for me in this new version was "America" when Spielberg decided to bring the dancing out into the streets in full sunlight, rather than confined in the rooftop at night in the original. The dancing prowess of DeBose and Alvarez was really spellbinding there, like that of Moreno and Chakiris were in the original. I was distracted by the changes in the order of "Cool" before the rumble and "I Feel Pretty" after the rumble. (But I would later find out that these were their original placements in the 1957 stage version.) 

The crudeness of language and depiction of violence were more disturbing in this new version.The character of Anybodys was portrayed as trans instead of a tomboy, and her part during Anita's assault scene was better executed It felt odd how the Spanish lines did not have subtitles, but I get why Spielberg did this for "respect." 

While watching this remake, the scenes, dances and singing of the original film were replaying themselves in my mind. While admittedly with some striking cinematographic choices and bold directorial decisions, this remake still could not match the original for me. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."