West Side Story: An Indelible Song for All Time

Wilmer Acosta-Florez
6 min readJan 19, 2022

The endorphin rush kicks in within the first 20 minutes of WEST SIDE STORY. It was sometime after the prologue, around the point when Riff gathers his Jets for a bit of strategizing. They’re angry, forsaken. “Depraved on account of being deprived,” to borrow a classic line. And as they belt out, thrust, and gyrate to their iconic number, “Jet Song,” amongst the rumble of their beloved slice of New York, it’s around that point you realize what a buffoon you were for ever doubting Spielberg. You remember that the 74 year old master’s technical proficiency is a cut above the glut, but never to the detriment of his story’s emotional impact.

Remakes and reimagining are no foreign things for an industry flooded with IP and franchises. You’ve probably seen your share of them; even questioned the quality of a fair amount. But, although the self-aggrandizing market forces that be are reticent to strive too far from their self-perpetuated doubts and terrors, it’s important to understand that the teams accrued to see these remakes to fruition do so with the best creative intentions.

No one wants to make a bad film. A bad anything, really. And yet we see the industry tread out lifeless remakes time and again. Perhaps they’ve lost sight of the pertinent qualities that define a classic? Or perhaps the vision is clear but the main issue lies with execution. Movie making is an arduous endeavor, after all.

Whatever the case, Steven Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY is a clear example of a remake hitting on most cylinders. Not everything rings true, but the film that Spielberg and co. have produced can surely be described as movie magic.

The Rundown:

New York, 1950’s. The lives of an interracial group of hoodlums — the white “Jets,” and the Puerto Rican “Sharks” — are thrown into disarray by the encroaching gentrification threatening their slice of New York. Enter, Maria and Tony. Star-crossed lovers forced to reckon with their forbidden love, lineage, and loyalty to creed. The timeless Romeo and Juliet story that has captivated audiences is brought to life once more for a new generation of filmgoer.

Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by o Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Spielberg’s insistence on preserving the original stage production’s essence means sticking to a musical arrangement that might sound off to those accustomed to Robert Wise’s 1961 film. Hardcore fans of Bernstein and Sondheim’s original are bound to be most pleased by this one. Although, the commitment is not without its share of creative decisions lost in translation. For one, the track listing.

The venerable showstopper, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which features a handful of Jets coming to terms with their squalor, plays before the “Tonight” quintet. Songs that were sung by one cast member in Wise’s film are omitted from scenes all together in Spielberg’s adaption. Rite Moreno returns to the musical that snatched her the Oscar, portraying a wholly new character — a knowledgeable mother figure for the wayward, and troubled Tony — that takes center stage with a pivotal number from the book’s second half. A choice sure to leave longtime fans scratching their heads.

What’s most jarring is the placement of “I Feel Pretty” near the final act, itself cursed by the looming specter of death and woe. This number is preceded by an extravagantly-staged climactic fight scene between rival gangs with great stakes involved. All that, just so we can transition into a flowery department store scene in a flock of bodacious shark ladies prance around to the lyrical, bright stylings of the musical’s most popular song. A jarring decision that otherwise doesn’t negatively alter the films smooth pacing. Although, at 150 minutes, you’re sure to feel the length.

20-year-old Rachel Zegler is a revelation as Maria Vasquez. The center piece of a production loaded with stage talent. Underneath the veil of her petite stature are vocal cords that pierce the air with feeling. Half of what a successful musical number requires is commitment to character and emotion, not just natural talent. Zegler just feels perfectly suited for the musical genre. Something sure to aide the starlet in her Disney-oriented further projects. When others rely on speculation and foresight, Rachel Zegler is the sort of rare talent who’s prospects lay bare at the outset, carrying more than her share of charm for both star-crossed lovers.

Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.

Ansel Elgort, who’s physicality is undeniable and right for the part, can, at best, be described as adequate. In truth, his vocals throughout the musical left me wanting. “Maria,” is the ultimate statement on the subject of desire and yearning, and yet Elgort plays it like a college-grade recital. His renditions often time feel over rehearsed, methodical. More from the head and less from the heart.

The stage is ultimately belongs to Ariana DeBose and for all the obvious reasons. From the beginning, the role of Anita was always the meatiest. Most seeming in gravity and excitement. DeBose is electric. The performer with the loudest part and, thus, most likely to be recognized by the awards institutions. Mike Faist and David Alvarez are wholly entertaining and convincing as the dueling heads of the Jets and Sharks. For my money, Faist gives the most memorable performance. The one I left thinking: “Man, did I just witness a star in the making?” It’s subtle, but keep an eye out for the young man.

In premise, a 21st century cinematic reimagining of WEST SIDE STORY feels like a daunting ask even for a filmmaker of Spielberg’s pedigree. An insurmountable obstacle with a bonafide pedigree, on stage or anywhere else. These were the preconceived notions I brought to the film. In actuality, I should have briefly stepped back. I should have taken the moment to analyze what it is that defines WEST SIDE STORY: A text that has forever changed my personal relationship to film; to music; to my understanding of life.

The Leonard Bernstein score I hold so dear. The Jerome Robbins choreography which, at this juncture, must be revered as an institution all its own. The Sondheim lyrics, eminently all encompassing and damned entertaining. In my warped logic, I equated the existence of Tony Kushner’s script with the axing of all those exquisite qualities.

And what about Tony Kushner’s screenplay? Perhaps the real unsung hero of this whole endeavor. The veteran playwright turn screenwriter leaves the story be, only injecting a bit of emotional heft and motivation where it was left wanting prior. Riff and Bernardo’s struggle for survival now feels genuine. Tony’s character development, though still muted, benefits from an added dimension that I won’t spoil here. And that’s the best way one could describe the changes made to WEST SIDE STORY. Everything is given an added dimension. The score and choreography can speak for themselves.

Where most remakes fail on account of poor imagination or a misunderstanding of what marks a successful text or just not enough creative invention, WEST SIDE STORY rings true because it doesn’t delineate from what it proceeds. It was always going to succeed as a film because the underlying foundation is rock solid. Always has been. And, with a great script from Kushner, and a mind like Spielberg’s? Only a fool would question those prospects.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez

Catch WEST SIDE STORY in theaters where you can.

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Wilmer Acosta-Florez

Writer with knowledge of film and film culture. Just as excited for the next big release as anyone else. Let's talk?