Film Review: “West Side Story” — An Unnecessary Remake
By Gerald Peary
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is fairly entertaining, fairly decent, but that’s about it.
West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg. In cinemas throughout New England
Yeah, yeah, Richard Beymer was a miscast stiff as Tony and Natalie Wood was a miscast white-bread movie star as Puerto Rican Maria, and, for both nonsingers, their musical numbers were dubbed. And the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, was populated by non-Hispanic dancers. Still, I was dazzled by the 1961 film of West Side Story when I saw it at age 17. I had a crush on Natalie Wood, so I looked past her deficiencies. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno took over the movie as smashing, charismatic incarnations of Bernardo and Anita. I adored the Leonard Bernstein music, and I played my Columbia Records soundtrack album again and again. Best of all, truly transcendent, was the mighty choreography of Jerome Robbins. He was the finest ever for Broadway dance.
Very nice memories, and I’ve never watched the Robert Wise–directed West Side Story again. Nor three other favorites from my teen years, the films of Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The King and I. My guess is that all have faded and dated, the way many musicals written directly for the screen have not: for example, the ever-fresh Astaire-Rogers musicals and Busby Berkeley’s ever-effervescent 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.
So, admittedly, I came to Steven Spielberg’s redoing of West Side Story for 2021 with trepidation. Why mess around with a good thing, even if the original bubbly movie was 60 years old? Was I being fair? I didn’t see it, but apparently a Broadway remake of Oklahoma! several years ago discovered, successfully, a dark underside to the sunny musical; and a recent New York revival of Carousel was also much touted. Maybe Spielberg was on to a new way, a revisionist, toughened West Side Story, especially since a new book was being provided by Tony Kushner, queer and left-wing and author of the great 1991 play of American theater, Angels in America.
My skepticism was justified. Spielberg’s West Side Story is fairly entertaining, fairly decent, but that’s about it. Should it have been remade? I see no reason at all. Those wonderful songs we all know and love (“Maria,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” “America,” etc.) feel pickled and antiquarian. They are “oldies” which, today, don’t excite. (I’ve heard that Stephen Sondheim — brilliantly ironic, cynical, jaded — separated himself from his 20-something earnest lyrics for West Side Story, so influenced by his hero, Oscar Hammerstein.) Kushner’s screenplay is disappointingly mundane, pedestrian, and, of a piece with the heavy-handed songs; the politics is finger-wagging, mainstream liberalism. Guns are bad. People of different races and ethnic groups should get along. And though there’s no police violence in this safe movie, there is one cop, added for the film, who is rude to the Puerto Ricans and clearly favors the Italian Jets in the turf war. (If only all law enforcement was as neutered and buffoonish as Officer Krupke!)
The characters remain what they were in the first movie: one-dimensional, especially Tony and Maria, Romeo-and-Juliet cutouts. A brand new character thrown in, played spiritedly by 90-year-old Rita Moreno, is a “woke” fairy godmother of consciousness. She’s the one who delivers a speech attacking Rape, shaming a roomful of Jets, a strained bit of Me Too oratory injected by Kushner to make the movie relevant to today. The other updates for a contemporary audience, nothing mind-blowing: the Sharks are now all played by Hispanics, and the new Maria (a sweet newcomer, Rachel Zegler) is half-Colombian. Also, the Sharks speak to each other mostly in nonsubtitled Spanish, though they sometimes awkwardly repeat the words after in English, for stunted Anglo viewers like me.
So what’s to like about the new West Side Story? Bernardo and Anita are again wisely cast, played with conviction by Ariana De Bose and David Alvarez, and Mike Faist is a feisty young thug as Riff, in the proud Warner Brothers tough-boy tradition. There’s a tense knife fight at one point, and, if not Jerome Robbins, Justin Peck provides some vigorous, inventive choreography: the Jets taking over the New York streets and a lively scene in which the Jets and Sharks and their molls try to one-up each other with their dancing. Spielberg’s directing is professional, of course, but strangely impersonal. And you can never go wrong with Janus Kamiński’s lavish cinematography.
Oh, a dab more politics. At the beginning of the film, there are street signs showing that this whole West Side of New York area is being cleared to put in the Lincoln Center Complex. That’s bad! Actually, as there is no physical 20th Century Fox studio these days, some terrain was cleared, Robert Moses-fashion, to put up the truly mammoth, many-million dollar set for this movie. Manhattan turned into rubble reminiscent of World War II Dresden. Did all this money need to be spent for the slum background of some songs and street fights? In fact, could the whole hundred million dollar budget of the new, mostly unneeded West Side Story been far better spent for homeless shelters or affordable housing? Just a silly thought.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.
Let us now praise Gerald Peary’s integrity. Like him, when I saw West Side Story (the first time it was broadcast on TV, I was thrilled by it. The next day in school, someone played the album, and we couldn’t wait to see the second half that night. As the years went by my enthusiasm faded. I tried watching it again, a couple of years ago, and couldn’t finish it. The remake shows us that Spielberg is a worthy heir to Robert Wise. Too bad Pauline Kael’s not around for this.
Most forget that the original Broadway production was not the smash hit that everyone remembers; it had a long run but not everyone worshipped it. Though by the time of the movie, it was anointed. Now it’s hyped to the point where this week’s Times Literary Supplement reviewer declares it the only artwork of the 20th century that will “reverberate in the 21st century.” Yikes.
Gerald Peary’s opinion will, I am sure, be the majority of one. The great-and-the- good-wannabes are already chanting hosannas. Challenging Spielberg is shaking one’s fist in righteous anger at a Hollywood colossus. Bravo, Gerry.
My only critical quibble is with the near-pass he gives Kushner for recycling his “Ethel Rosenberg” gimmick from Angels in America. Tony Kushner uses a megaphone, not a pen, to push his conceits. He’s been getting away with his gasbagging for far too long.
Finally, Peary’s conclusion hits the hypocrisy of the enterprise hard. First house the homeless — then sell cinematic salvation.
The casting was all wrong. Bad acting, could not finish watching as it was so bad .
Not only have I seen photographs and both of the trailers to Spielberg’s upcoming reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story, butI I recently saw a program on the comparisons of the original 1961 film version of West Side Story and Spielberg’s reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story, and have decided that I will take a hard pass on seeing Spielberg’s film version of West Side Story for the following reasons:
A) The musical score in Spielberg’s version of WSS sounds tinny, bombastic, and too loud.
B) The dancing is way too hyped up.
C) The backdrop scenes in Spielberg’s West Side Story look far more like the tonier and wealthier parts of the city, rather than the impoverished, rough-and-rundown parts of the city.
D) The Jets and Sharks themselves look too much like the newsie boys, and their girls look far more like a bunch of wealthy suburban prep-school girls that are dressed to the nines for partying around town, rather than a bunch of gangsters’ girlfriends.
E) The colors are mostly too dark, and Spielberg’s remake/reboot of the film version seems a lot more violent than the original 1961 film version of West Side Story. Two of the greatest strengths of the original 1961 film version of West Side Story are the fact that first, the original 1961 film version of WSS is strong proof that various emotions, actions and behavior can be told beautifully through dance, thanks to the late Jerome Robbins’ beautifully choreographed dancing for the 1961 film version of WSS. Secondly, when the original 1957 Broadway stage version of West Side Story was transferred from stage to screen, it was preserved as a largerSide-than-lifesized piece of theatre.
F) I’ve admittedly always had a gut reaction against remakes/reboots of good older classic films, especially something such as the original 1961 film version of West Side Story. I also preferred the colors that were used in the original film version of West Side Story–i. e. the skillful use of reds, blues and purples to exude the passion of the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story.
G) All of the characters in the original 1961 film version of West Side Story looked way rougher and tougher and the characters in Spielberg’s West Side Story. Lt. Schrank (played by Simon Oakland) and Officer Krupke,m(played by Bill Bramley), looked way rougher and tougher than Spielberg’s Officer Krupke and Lt. Schrank.
I will also add, that, having said all of the above, Spielberg’s film version of West Side Story feels very forced, unnatural, and all wrong to me. It just does not feel like West Side Story, at all, to me.
It would’ve been far, far better if Spielberg had created a film of his own with the same theory as West Side Story, or at least a similar theory to West Side Story, rather than to re-do a great golden oldie-but-keeper of a classic movie-musical that won ten well-deserved and well-earned Academy Awards, including Best Picture when it hit the movie theatres in late October of 1961
Thanks, Tom Connolly and MPLO, for backing me up, though you will never know if you really agree with me without seeing the West Side Story remake. I would ask Tom Connolly to explain his “Ethel Rosenberg” remark as I don’t quite understand it. And, MPLO, in neither version of West Side Story do the dancers or the police seem particularly tough. There isn’t much difference, and maybe not a reason to favor one movie over the other. This is musical theater, not neo-realism.
As I pointed out in one of my earlier posts on here, the Jets and Sharks themselves look too much like the newsie boys, and their girls look far more like a bunch of wealthy suburban prep-school girls who are dressed to the nines for partying around town than a bunch of gangsters’ girlfriends.
Lt. Schrank ( played by Simon Okland) and Ofer Krupke (played by Bill Bramley) in the original 1961 film version of West Side Story looked way rougher and tougher than the Lt. Schrank and Ofer. Krupke in Spielberg’s new film version of WSS.
Just a few notes about the 1961 version (I probably will wait to see Spielberg’s film until it streams). Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (who were co-directors) filmed their opening in 1961 on West Side streets which were immediately razed to make way for Lincoln Center. So when Spielberg opens with the Lincoln Center reference, he’s signaling that he’s bulldozing the 1961 version (and the Robbins choreography along with it). Robbins was eventually dismissed due to his costly perfectionism, but the perennially underrated Wise hewed closely to his vision – it remained co-directed in spirit – and I wouldn’t call the results dated. Indeed, much of the cinematography (and especially the brilliant editing) is legendary; if anything these aspects have GAINED in luster over the years. The opening sequence, and other high points such as the gym dance and “America,” probably remain the standard for cinematic translation of a staged original. As for the singing – for whatever it’s worth, in addition to Beymer and Wood, Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and yes, even Anita (Rita Moreno) were dubbed in part or entirely (Moreno supposedly sings most of “America”). (Marni Nixon and Betty Wand deserve movies of their own, but that’s another story). Spielberg has long been half-cognizant of the emptiness of his superficially dazzling style; he has tried unsuccessfully in the past to channel David Lean and Billy Wilder. Now he’s trying to pretend he’s the equal of Jerome Robbins. My gut is he isn’t.
I have to admit to one thing: For me, there’s only one West Sider Story film version, and that is the old, original 1961 film version, for all the reasons that I’ve listed above.
The fact that Ansel Elgort, who’s playing the lead of Tony, has a history of grooming and sexually assaulting under-aged girls has also stiffened my resolve to vote my pocketbook and not go to see Spielberg’s reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story, at all.
I and some friends of mine had the good fortune to view the 60th Anniversary screening of the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story, late this past fall, on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie theatre here in Boston, MA, courtesy of fathom events.com and Turner Classic movies. Like other older films, it played in selective movie theatres throughout the United States.
Both the print and the soundtrack to the 60th Anniversary screening of the original 1961 film version of West Side Story were absolutely pristine and stellar–no scratches or any other flaws anywhere. My friends and I all had a great time seeing this great golden oldie-but-keeper of a classic movie-musical on the great big, wide movie theatres screen.
Due to my intense love for the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story, I’m more than willing to overlook the dubbing that occurs in this film, plus dubbing was very, very common during that general period.
Here’s hoping that, despite the fact that Spielberg’s reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story is now out and playing in movie theatres, that the old, original 1961 film version also continues to play, in movie theatres on occasion, as well.
I like a lot of older films better any way, but the old, original 1961 film version is my all time favorite movie, hands down.
Oh I forgot – Spielberg also tried to be Stanley Kubrick once. (Probably his best imitation, actually – “A.I.” works pretty well for the most part, only falling apart in an overly literal finale that we imagine Kubrick would have left more ironic and oblique.)
I saw it when I was seven. I couldn’t stop singing and dancing. I have the album memorized, the orchestrations, the songs…..
I still cry at the hushed moment when Tony, out of his mind with grief sees Maria. Total silence…all you hear is her running and the chain link fence clanging. There is a moment when you can’t tell who got the bullet as they both slide to the ground.
Also, for those who scream miscast! Watch the scene in the rumble, when Tony screams Maria’s name in despair over her brother’s dead body, then flings himself almost upside down over the fence to escape.
Or when Maria screams “Don’t you TOUCH HIM ” and stares down the cop, who, for once is speechless.
This movie was transcendant. The worst movie of a book I’ve ever seen was Spielberg’s The Color Purple. This white boy man doesn’t do humans. His action stuff is great. Sugarland Express is his best movie, to me, because it isn’t for children, and it wasn’t budgeted at a hundred million dollars.
Next time, Spielberg should just make a rocket so he can race Jeff Bezos, instead of cancelling what was the greatest film musical since Wizard of Oz.
Thanks for letting me share.
P.S. Pauline Kael didn’t care for the original, but that’s Pauline! I didn’t mnd, because of how she loved Sugarland Express! (also, she was never sentimental.)
I am. That’s why I will pass on the fake Spielberg money show. Just, please don’t anyone let Spielberg near Bonnie and Clyde!
I don’t think that Spielberg has even made back half the 100 million dollars that it cost him to reboot/remake the film version of West Side Story. It didn’t do well in the movie theatre box office(s),. and I’m not even sure that it’ll do well now that it’s streamed for watching at home, or on a computer. I saw part of Spielberg’s reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story (which I rented to play on my computer),. and I’m really sorry I did! I could not bring myself to see it in its entirety. I’ll stick with the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story. Reboots/remakes of great golden oldie-but-keeper classic films generally don’t come out very well, nor do they have the same charm, charisma and personality as the original(s), and the reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story is definitely NO exception!
As a devout fan of the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story, I had the great opportunity to see the 60th anniversary screening of the movie with a bunch of friends in a theater which is a stone’s throw from where I live. It was playing on Sunday, November 28th and on Wednesday, December 1st, in select movie theaters throughout the United States, courtesy of fathom events.com and turner classic movies. What a wonderfully beautiful print of the old WSS film version it was, and it showed on a great big, wide movie screen, to boot. Moreover, the soundtrack was absolutely pristine, as well. I’ve been a devout fan of the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story for more than 50 years, and I still am.
Three weeks ago, I saw a program on TV that emphasized the comparisons of Spielberg’s film version of West Side Story and the 1961 film version of WSS, and more recently, listened to the soundtrack of Spielberg’s film version out of curiosity, on YouTube. It was very metallic-sounding, tinny, and sometimes flat, as well. The singing voices of Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort were quite overrated. Also, the stuff that came out about Ansel Elgort ( i. e. grooming and sexual assault of underaged girls). as well as the stuff mentioned above, stiffened my resolve to vote my pocketbook and not go to see Spielberg’s new film version of West Side Story, at all
My Facebook post today: All of you probably noticed that Spielberg’s West Side Story flopped at the box office, a shock to all who believed it would be a Christmas hit, especially with (this company excepted) all those deliriously positive reviews. My theory is that most people LOVE the 1961 version and don’t need a new one. They don’t care if the voices were dubbed and, rejecting PC, don’t care either that the original cast was filled with fake Puerto Ricans. In my view, Robert Wise out-directed Spielberg, and there was no way for the new version to match the sterling, extraordinary choreography of Jerome Robbins. And she couldn’t sing and she wasn’t Hispanic, but my Natalie Wood was a cute Maria!
You’re right on all those posters, Gerald Peary! Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I saw parts of Spielberg’s reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story, and thought that it was very, very overdone.
I have read all of the above. I am not a professional critic but have lived with the 1961 version all of my life. It has its plus’ and minus’, but was certainly, in its time, ground breaking. I just saw the current version and was very moved by it despite certain flaws (too much dialogue including Spanish dialogue, so that the film’s length was over extended and, as a result, its forward momentum hampered). But I salute Spielberg for taking the risk of re-envisioning this classic! I applaud his efforts and his passion! Unfortunately, audiences have changed, and need more efforts such as these to reawaken them to the power and relevance of live and filmed American Musical Theater! And I think that Rita Moreno would agree with me. I also found myself stimulated by the change in the order of the songs. Rachel Zegler had it all over Natalie Wood in this production despite Ms. Wood being a deservedly celebrated actress!
I did not care for the fact that the orders of the songs “I Feel Pretty”, “Cool” and “Officer Krupke” were changed back to the way they were during the original 1957 Broadway stage production of West Side Story.
I admit that I have a gut reaction and resistance to remakes of older classic films, especially something such as West Side Story, and it has still stayed with me. One of the strengths of the old, original 1961 film version of WSS is the fact that when it was transferred from stage to screen, it was preserved as a larger-than-lifesized piece of theatre. I thought that the seamlessly combined on-location scenes and sound stage scenes by the late Boris Leven looked uncannily like the impoverished, rough-and-rundown sections of the city, as opposed to the tonier, wealthier parts of the city, the latter of what the backdrop scenes in Spielberg’s reboot/remake of the film West Side Story look like,.
I also like the fact that often enough, reds and purples, as well as blues, were used to indicate the passion of the very story behind WSS in the old, original 1961 film version. Having seen parts of the new film version of WSS, both on TV, and online, I tend to lean towards the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story. Reboots/remakes of older classic films don’t carry nearly the charm, charisma and personalities of the original films, and WSS is no exception.
Here is my Ethel Rosenberg clarification. Gerald Peary: “A brand new character thrown in, played spiritedly by 90-year-old Rita Moreno, is a “woke” fairy godmother of consciousness.” To me this is recycling a device Kushner used in “Angels in America”–using the ghost (?) of Ethel Rosenberg to speak as some sort of national conscience. Moreno’s character isn’t speaking from the beyond but is nonetheless, a similar moralizing mechanism.
I finally rented Spielberg’s reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story and saw it, on my computer
My feelings that I would not like the reboot/remake of the film version of West Side Story were re-enforced by seeing it. In fact, I could not bring myself to sit through the whole thing.
i SAW IT IN A THEATER AND THOUGHT IT WAS GREAT. LAST YEAR I REALLY LIKED LICORICE PIZZA FRENCH DISPATCH NIGHTMARE ALLEY. UNFORTUNATELY
DRIVE MY CAR WENT OVER MY HEAD
BECAUSE OF NETFLIX’S NONSENSICAL THEATRICAL RELEASE SCHEDULE I HAVEN’T SEEN POWER OF THE DOG AND (NOT LIVING IN NYC) PROBABLY NEVER WILL … CAMPION IS A FINE DIRCTOR GLAD SHE’S BACK
I DON’T KNOW YOUR AGE AND HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT SEEING A FILM ON A BIG SCREEN…TO ME IT’S REALY IMPORTANT. IF THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT TO SEE AND NO CHANCE ON SEEING IN A CINEMA GUESS SMALL SCREEN’S THE ONLY CHOICE. I STILL HAVEN’T SEEN BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS I HATE NETFLIX AND WHAT IT IS DOING TO THE CINEPLEX EXPERIENCE.