Courtesy Niko Tavernise, 20th Century Studios

When Steven Spielberg announced his remake of West Side Story, collective eyebrows raised in crisp unison. First of all, did WSS need to be remade again at all? Could Spielberg successfully jump genres to direct a musical? And—other than the shameful casting choices of the original—was there anything to be improved upon in what is universally regarded to be one of the best depictions of a musical on film? The answers, surprisingly, were “yes,” “yes,” and “yes!” To the shock of many, the 2021 remake is a bona fide hit, improving on the original in unexpected ways, yet in one case, still repeating the mistakes of the past. 

Spielberg wisely does not attempt to re-create the beloved 1961 original scene for scene, making the story his own. He smartly includes enough scaffolding from the original to satisfy die-hard fans, such as the iconic whistle at the opening, and the colorblocked design of Maria’s apartment, illustrating that even as an experienced filmmaker, he is humble enough to defer to perfection, and will hopefully spend his golden years exclusively directing musicals. The cinematography by Janusz Kamiński showcases countless exquisite, haunting visuals, immediately informing viewers that this isn’t just a film—it’s art.

The film isn’t perfect by any means, but the new version rights many of the most egregious wrongs of the original, including wisely tweaking the more problematic of Sondheim’s lines at the top of “America,” and casting Latinx talent for Latinx roles, most notably the angelic, golden-voiced Rachel Zegler as Maria. Tony Kushner’s screenplay reinterpretation gives her character a bit more agency and depth, and Zegler is a joy to watch, making the most of every moment. Unfortunately, her costar Ansel Elgort as Tony has all of the charisma of a wet paper bag hanging from a fire escape, and the editor is forced too frequently to use awkward shots of the back of his head while singing swelling emotional phrases because—one presumes—nothing of interest is emoting on his blank face. One understands why Elgort was cast; his voice is lovely, and he’s easy on the eyes, but the duo ultimately has no real connection or heat, and they are doomed to repeat the cardinal sin of the original—being completely upstaged by their supporting actors.

West Side Story
3/4 stars
Dir. Steven Spielberg. PG-13, 156 min. Wide release in theaters.

Ariana DeBose as Anita is the real star of this film, chewing up every single scene and spitting it out with no mercy. Rita Moreno left big stilettos for her to fill, and DeBose honors her legacy with gusto and makes the role her own with every spin of her skirts. The devastatingly emotional “A Boy Like That / I Have A Love” scene becomes an absolute showstopper, entirely based on the weight of her performance. David Alvarez matches her pound for pound as the charmingly misogynistic boxer Bernardo, and it’s a delight to watch them go round and round together. Scenes where characters speak Spanish without offering subtitles are an excellent and welcome touch. 

Mike Faist is terrific as Riff, the waifish scamp with a big smile and cold, dead eyes, and a lack of a reason to live. Spielberg’s greatest triumph lies in finding new context that wasn’t included in Arthur Laurents’s original book. One of the largest changes to the plot is a recontextualization of “Cool” (the original being one of the most iconic dance numbers ever set to film) in a way that makes more logical sense to the plot and adds a sobering realism to the vicious machismo of angry, racist, young men. The Sharks and Jets of the 2021 version are far more violent and brutal than the original, mirroring the intensity of the sublimely kinetic orchestral score. While most of Jerome Robbins’s classic choreography is heartbreakingly jettisoned (and likely nearly impossible to re-create), Justin Peck does excellent work creating new choreography that is severely pared back, yet extraordinarily impactful. 

Supporting characters like Chino (a layered Josh Andrés Rivera) receive more depth, adding more meat to the story. Anybodys (a plucky Iris Menas), initially little more than throwaway comic relief, now provides a refreshing nod towards transgender representation. The largest surprise is a perfectly recast Rita Moreno as Valentina, a newly created role (the widow of Doc, from the original) that is far more than a cameo, and allows Moreno to show off her still formidable musical talent. Her presence helps provide a warm and nostalgic handoff of a classic musical from one generation to the next.