West Side Story
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How Steven Spielberg brings West Side Story to the 21st century

The long-awaited Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake has finally premiered in theatres at the end of 2020, almost two years after principal photography for the film ended. The film follows the plot of the original West Side Story film, which, in turn, is loosely based on the classical Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. It transfers the similar plot points of the famous star-crossed lovers’ tragedy in the context of the racial tensions and gang violence of 1960s New York City. 

West Side Story: the remake

The film is set in 1957 on the West Side of Manhattan, the area where both the Jets, the gang comprising of white youths led by Riff (Mike Faist), and the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) want to gain control over.  In an attempt to reconcile the two gangs, the local authority organises a dance for the community to smooth over the growing tensions.

Here, Tony (Ansel Elgort), Riff’s best friend and co-founder of the Jets. and Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernando’s sister who lives with him and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) but yearns for her independence, meet and instantly fall in love. This angers Bernardo who wants his sister to be with Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) and thus accepts Riff’s terms for the rumble in order to fight Tony.

However, the latter, now on parole, refuses to engage in the feud between the gangs as he is trying to create a life for himself outside of the gang, with the help of Valentina (Rita Moreno).

How Steven Spielberg brings West Side Story to the 21st century | Rock & Art

The 1961 West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jeremy Robbins, was itself an adaptation of the 1957 stage musical of the same name. It was the first and, up to this day, the only, musical that has won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture Award. Given the critical acclaim the 2021 West Side Story has received and its success in the award season so far, it looks like the latter will be able to echo – at least to some level – the success of its predecessor.

In fact, the film has also won many awards, including the four Golden Globes in the Motion Picture category: Best Director, Best Musical or Comedy as well as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy (Rachel Zegler), and Best Supporting Actress (Ariana DeBose). West Side Story has also been much discussed by the press and film critics. 

Throughout the film, the references to the original West Side Story are evident and recurrent. Not only is it a remake and thus alludes to the same plot and characters in a similar, if not almost identical, setting, but more importantly, this version of West Side Story can be seen as a tribute to the original musical. It is not just a remake, but it is a way for Steven Spielberg to show his affection for the original musical.

This is evident in the involvement of the original creators, such as the late Stephen Sondheim who wrote the original song lyrics, in this new version as well as in the presence of actors who were in the first film. Three of the Jets from the first film are present as extras, and Rita Moreno, the actress who played Anita in the original musical, plays the key character of Valentina, created specifically for this film. Moreno is also one of the executive producers of the film, being on set for most of the principal photography and consulting with the choreographer.

As mentioned, this new West Side Story not only re-tells but also aims to depart from its predecessors. The presence of new characters is perhaps one of the most visible examples of this. Firstly, Valentina does not exist in the 1961 film: instead, the original character of Doc is reworked into Rita Moreno’s character and given far more space in the story. In this version, Valentina becomes a key character in Tony’s development and character.

It is also worth noticing that the 2021 West Side Story is giving a female character more space, one that is not involved in a love story and that represents a motherly presence on screen. It is with little yet important details like this that Spielberg’s retelling of West Side Story comes to reach a 21st-century audience.  She even has a solo song – Somewhere – previously sang as a duet by Maria and Tony. 

Anybodys (Iris Menass), a new character introduced in the 2021 film as a member of the Jets, stands out as a non-binary actor playing a transgender character. This aspect helps the musical reflect the real world in which it is set and also allows the 2021 film to reflect on gender fluidity and the importance of representation in mainstream media. This initially got the film banned in all of the countries in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.

As regards the characters, even those present in the 1961 film have undergone a clear transformation. Most notably, it is safe to say that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story gives more depth to the existing characters: in this new 21st-century version, Maria has a job in New York and has future prospects to gain her freedom and independence. Similarly, Tony is given a more significant backstory here in which his past and current parole situation are thoroughly explained and given attention to. 

Spielberg expands the context of the film, providing additional details to the characters and the circumstances of a racially divided New York City. Further, differences arise as regards the plot of the film. As noted before, the plot stays the same for the majority of it; however, there are some differences that are worth noticing, for example, the central couple spends far more time together throughout the film, they get to know each other more than they did in the original film and go out on an actual date together.

The changes are particularly evident in the positioning of some of the songs which slightly but significantly changes their meaning or relevance to the plot, despite maintaining the original song and lyrics. This is what happens with the aforementioned song Somewhere. Similarly, the song Cool is introduced earlier in this version of the film and is thus situated before the rumble and is reworked as a confrontation between Tony and Riff, instead of being sung to calm the Jets down after the rumble. 

Another significant element to Spielberg’s West Side Story is the casting. Spielberg brings in new faces that are not as well-known to the movie scene – except perhaps for Ansel Elgort as Tony – and decided to cast a big majority of the actors with either stage background or experience of Broadway: Mike Faist, for instance, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor for his role in Dear Evan Hansen, a role he originated, similarly Ariana DeBose was part of the original cast of Hamilton and appears in the taped version of the musical available on Disney+.

This is reflected in the increase in singing and dancing in the film, which was not necessarily present in the 1961 version, where most of the actors did not actually sing themselves. On the contrary, the singing was performed by their ghost singers, not all of which received on-screen credit for their performances.

More significantly, all the Sharks characters are played by Latino actors: Rachel Zegler, who marks his debut with this film, is Colombian-American and Ariana DeBose’s father is Puerto Rican. This reflects authenticity in the portrayal of the characters that is absent from the original film which castes mostly white actors, in particular when the Sharks talk or sing in Spanish, which signifies a key part of their identity throughout the film, as their status as immigrants in the United States and the discrimination that comes from this are often reflect upon, such as in the song America.

Compared to the original 1961 film, the change in the use of technology is evident. We can see this in the cinematography, combining lighting and colours to create a beautiful atmosphere that is specific for each scene. For example, the rumble scene is masterfully constructed with lowlights which aid in creating a sharp contrast between shadows and lights which, along with the darker tones of the scene, convey the dark turn of this scene and its significance for the overall film.

As such, the colours are extremely significant throughout the film, as evident in the costumes: throughout the film, the Jets wear blue and the Sharks wear red which visually distinguishes them from one another and highlights the division between the two. However, Tony does not wear the blue that identifies the Jets, rather, his costumes tend to gravitate towards more neutral tones, visually signifying his desire to distance himself from the Jets.

Similarly, Maria’s costumes feature neutral tones in them, but it is worth noting that in Maria’s case, the red that symbolises the Sharks is hinted at in all her costumes at the beginning of the film, her red belt strikingly pops out in contrast to her white dress in the scene of the ball. The red is gradually replaced by the Jets blue as her romance with Tony blossoms, as we can see with her blue dress during the song I Feel Pretty.

Although the colour division in the costumes was suggested in the original film as well, the change within Maria’s colour palette is particular to this version and signifies her internal struggle to choose between the two colours: the red representing the Sharks and, thus, her family and life, and the blue that represents the Jets and, more broadly, Tony and the promise of a future of freedom and independence. 

The film, however, was not immune to criticism. What is perhaps the most significant and pressing concern is that surrounding the main actor Ansel Elgort. The actor was accused of sexual assault about a year and a half ago after principal photography for West Side Story had been wrapped. The allegations have been denied by Elgort and not have been addressed by the majority of the cast or crew.

As many other reviewers have commented, it is upsetting and unfortunate to see that there is no real discussion regarding the allegations that the actor is facing or even any mention of it in the mainstream media discussions of the film. A further critique of the film is the question of whether or not we needed a remake of the famous music, a question that is often raised when talking about remakes in general. 

In light of the ‘remake debate’ I believe that in this specific case, it is worth noting that the musical is not simply a remake or a retelling. Spielberg’s West Side Story adapts the story for a 21st-century audience with modern storytelling and technological needs and standards, thus repurposing the original content to fit today’s world.

It is a tribute to the original film and to the legacy of its original creators, including maintaining the legacy of one of the most famous musical theatre American composers, Stephen Sondheim who was involved in the film and attended some of the recording sessions, and sadly passed away a few days before the film premiere.