Spielberg’s West Side Story Remake Captivates a New Generation

Emelia Crump, Staff Writer

Photos courtesy of IMDb

When seeing “Spielberg” plastered across a movie poster, it’s a seal of approval for a good feature, and this modernized version of the thoroughly beloved West Side Story proves no different. When love at first sight strikes upon two divergent lovers, tensions arise and persistence is at its highest. Opening with the Jets wandering New York City, the familiar gang gives the Newsies a run for their money while passing paint cans rhythmically with the occasional breakout into dance- the perfect way to set the tone for the musical.  

The film work is excellent from the get-go, smoothly transitioning from scene to scene and seamlessly bringing the audience to the next sequence. The plot, overall, is similar to the original West Side Story produced in 1961- the fundamental concept of the film is based on the feud between the disputatious American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks, when desires for territory stand high. Intertwined with the quarrels between gangs is the romantic connection between Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the sister of overprotective brother Bernando- leader of the Sharks. Nearing the end of this updated musical is certainly where the feature climaxes.

The movie itself has the perfect balance between romantic scenes that are commenced when Tony visits Maria’s apartment and serious situations that stir up when both gangs nearly fight to the death in the salt storage facility. What really makes the feature immersive is the camera work- the little details revealed by the position of the shots add significant touches. For instance, the overhead shot in the storehouse where both gangs enter from opposite sides really captures the intensity of the situation by the way the shot allows the dark shadows of the characters to be cast.

Behind the bleachers during the high school dance- the iconic scene where Maria and Tony first meet and instantly fall in love- is emphasized when the background music slows, the backdrop blurs and the tone is set, bringing the audience straight into the mindsets of the characters. Spectators are able to feel the intensity of the connection of the two individuals as if they were living it, perfectly capturing the significance of the relationship.

As this is Spielberg’s first production of a musical, it’s not even a question about if he’s a natural. Spielberg organically embeds songs into the right scenes, incorporating music when words don’t serve emotional justice. An example of this is when, of course, Maria and Tony passionately belt out “Tonight” during the course of the balcony scene. Although the first half of West Side Story is a bit slow starting off, the last hour is where things really start picking up, and the rest flies by. This is impressive, especially for a musical that has a runtime of 2 hours and 36 minutes. 

There are only a few minor differences that set apart the 1961 and 2021 West Side Story. For example, the Jets, who are portrayed as the protagonists in the original ‘61, are just as developed and given just as much attention as the Sharks in the ‘21 version of West Side Story. Also, the opening scene of the new West Side Story displays a stronger sense of negative drive when the Jets vandalize a mural of the Puerto Rican flag, which may prove to be uncomfortable for some viewers.  

The movie, overall, has great visual appeal. It certainly doesn’t replace the original 1961 West Side Story, but seeing the musical in a different light in regards to the quality of the film really complements and refreshes the primary performance itself, making for a brilliant film- whether viewers have seen the original or not. Anyone who’s a movie fanatic can appreciate the new take on one of the most classic musicals of all time.