‘West Side Story’ Blends Timeless Story With Modern Film Making

By Janie Walenda

At first, remaking “West Side Story” seems like a bad idea. First of all, the original film is one of the best musicals of all time, despite its outdated voice-over and casting practices. Second, movie musicals are a dying genre. While still surviving thanks to Disney and animation, musicals aren’t the spectacular blockbusters they used to be. With a disappointing opening weekend, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” will not deny this second point. However, against all odds, this version of the classic story not only holds a candle to the original, but cleverly builds on it.

One of the strengths of the film lies in its technical conception. The film is clearly Steven Spielberg’s passionate project, as he meticulously crafted each frame. Not only are the costumes beautiful, they help serve the story in ways that are unusual these days. The colors create a clear visual division that contributes to the defined aesthetic of the film. The blocking and the choreography are both inventive and engaging. Instead of being limited to a single frame like in a stage production, a film can interact more with its surroundings, which this film uses to its advantage.

Rachel Zegler as Maria

It’s almost impossible to discuss all of the characters in “West Side Story”, simply because there are so many worth talking about. The characters already had a lot of personality in the original film, but thanks to phenomenal acting and new additions to the storyline, each character felt more realistic. Tony and Maria are more complex than the previous versions, thanks to the excellent performances of Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. The changes to both of their characters, especially Tony, bring a lot of humanity and realism to often bland characters. While the scene in the museum was sweet, I missed how cute the scene in the clothing store was. I enjoyed most of the location changes, but while the museum scene developed the characters a bit, it lacked the fun of the clothing store scene.

Anita is a stage thief in every adaptation and this one is no different. Ariana Debose lights up the screen and founds the tragedy of the third act. I didn’t like her relationship with Bernardo (David Alvarez) so much, as it lacked a lot of the playfulness of the original. This change matches the changes made to Bernardo’s character, as he’s much angrier in this adaptation. This anger contrasts well with a more relaxed Riff. Played by Mike Faist, Riff was another stage thief who also reflects a larger change to the Jets in general.

West Side Story Movie Review: Steven Spielberg's remake proves the musical shouldn't be pulled.

The bar for Anita was extremely high and Ariana Debose crossed it

This version of “West Side Story” adds deeper motivation to both the Jets and the Sharks. As they fight for control of their neighborhood, it is ultimately an unsuccessful fight, as the block is about to be demolished to make way for more affluent residents. It adds an extra layer of tragedy to all of the events of the film, knowing that they ultimately have the same purpose. Additionally, the film makes a subtle distinction between the Sharks, who fight for their families and communities, and the Jets, who appear to be younger and have only one another.

One of the biggest differences in this adaptation is the order of the songs. Several songs, such as “Cool” and “I Feel Pretty” have been moved. It works quite well, as it refreshes the story without taking away any iconic moments. Another massive musical change gives “Somewhere” to Valentina’s new character. This character replaces Doc from the original and is played by Rita Moreno. Moreno played Anita in the original “West Side Story” and won an Oscar for her portrayal of the character. In the original context of the story, “Somewhere” is sung by Tony and Maria after the rumble. In the new version, Valentina sings it as she remembers her past and reflects on the future of the Sharks and Jets, many of whom she has seen grow up. Intercut with Anita dealing with the aftermath of the rumble, as well as Maria and Tony reconciling, the song is truly touching.

Where you saw the cast of West Side Story 2021

Rita Moreno’s Valentina is one of the many characters who have been given more depth

“West Side Story” can seem a bit staid and out of touch at times. Despite modern techniques and updates, this is still an old school Broadway musical. The tough gangs make ballet, and Maria and Tony still fall in love within a day. But thanks to all the talent and passion that shines through, “West Side Story” is a moving film that can connect with viewers of all generations.

West Side Story is available to watch at a movie theater near you.

Janie Walenda is a first year business student and A&E writer for Cedars. She enjoys watching musicals and movies as well as rereading the same books ten times.