West Side Story is Steven Speilberg’s remake of a 50’s Broadway production and 1961 film of the same name. Dig a little deeper, and West Side Story itself is a ‘modernised’ version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The love story of star crossed young lovers from rival gangs/families is a classic tale. But did we need West Side Story to be remade in 2021? I think the answer is yes. Is it perfect? Far from it, but if you enjoy musicals it is definitely worth seeing, whether you are a fan of the original or not.

What is West Side Story about?

Set in the 1950s telling the story of two rival gangs, the Jets (comprised of young white males), who fight the Puerto Rican Sharks for control of their neighbourhood on Manhattan’s West Side. Police seem to be powerless to control the turf war, with Officer Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank, providing helpful exposition that the conflict is pointless since the neighborhood will be demolished to make way for Lincoln Center. The gangs continue to rage on, fueled by pride and racism, and Jet leader Riff proposes a “rumble” (fight) between the two. He approaches his friend Tony, who is out on parole, for help. Tony refuses, as he is doing his best to restart his life with a new job working for Valentina, the Puerto Rican owner of Doc’s general store.

Maria, the sister of amateur boxer and Shark leader Bernardo’s sister, is dating his friend Chino but is unhappy. At a local dance, Tony and Maria meet and fall in love. The rival gangs are of course enraged leading to drama, and if you know West Side Story (or even Romeo and Juliet to an extent) you can probably guess how it ends.

How does this compare with the original 1961 movie?

I remember watching West Side Story over and over again as a kid, then as an adult, I realised just how ‘wrong’ it was. This film keeps what is great about the original (love story, choreographed dance fights, wonderful songs) and tries to improve on the things that made the original problematic. Does it totally succeed? It is definitely a major improvement. There is no ‘black face makeup’ here, and the Puerto Rican characters are a bit more fleshed out and less like racist caricatures.

“We needed to discover our voice so that [the new film] would be the same but distinctly different. We didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken, but we did want to justify why we were telling the story again,” Spielberg says. “Part of that is the cast. On stage, the actors have largely not been Hispanic, and in the 1961 movie they’re in their 30s, and many who were portraying the Puerto Ricans are white. I wanted to cast it authentically, to ensure that the actors playing the Shark boys and girls were one hundred per cent Latinx, and young.”

There is a couple of new songs, and some of the old classics have been ‘reimagined’ (sung at different stages or by different characters) than the original. Most of the characters have different backstories. One main character is totally different, with Doc transformed into his widow, a nurturing Puerto Rican woman who befriends young Tony. From the start, the role was intended for Rita Moreno, who starred in the first film and also joined the project as an executive producer.

Another improvement is the character or Nob

What’s great about West Side Story?

The cinematography is stunning, which is not surprising for a Steven Speilberg film. The film costumes, sets and backdrop are amazing at transporting you back to the 50’s. I didn’t have high expectations for the young, and mostly inexperienced and unknown stars of the film, but they are wonderful. Exceptional acting. Absolutely perfect voices for this film. The songs are supremely beautiful. The choreography and dance scenes are fabulous.

I don’t like musicals. Should I see West Side Story?

If you aren’t a fan of the genre, this is probably not the film to convert you – maybe check out The Greatest Showman or In the Heights first and come back once you are in the ‘tribe’. However, for those who are fans of musicals, this film is probably going to introduce West Side Story to a whole new generation, and that is a great thing.

West Side Story is released in Australia December 26, 2021 (with advance screenings available)

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