Hollywood loves a remake. Sometimes it’s a successful foreign film recast with English-speaking celebrities. Sometimes it’s a decent story that just didn’t work the first time around. Most of the time, it’s a hollow-minded cash-grab by a studio rejiggering its intellectual property. But now and then, it’s a filmmaker of regard taking a bonafide classic and filtering it through their own lens. Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear comes to mind, as does Paul Schrader’s 1982 version of Cat People. But it’s Gus Van Sant’s 1998 color-remake of Psycho that fits our intents and purposes like a glove. Take the shower scene: Under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock in 1960, that shower stabbing might be the most memorable sequence in all of cinema. Yet, Van Sant saw room for embellishment and inserted quick cuts of clouds as poor Marion got hacked to bits. Even when working with material beyond reproach, Van Sant refused to suppress his creativity.
Critics panned Van Sant’s Psycho, and audiences stayed away—an unlikely fate for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. With a story this universal, music this good, and dancing this impressive, how could it flop? It won’t. It’s as enjoyable as watching the 1961 Best Picture-winning version, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, and probably as explosive as watching the 1957 Broadway production. So the real question going into West Side Story isn’t “Why remake it?” but “Where will Spielberg’s creativity flower?”
One answer: In the sets and the setting. Working from a script by Tony Kushner—which sticks damn close to the original musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim—Spielberg’s West Side is teeming with life. If you’ve ever seen the ’61 version, then you remember the deserted streets and cavernous sets where the Sharks and Jets danced out their problems, the tenement rooftops that provided Maria her American stage. Not so in Spielberg’s version. The musical numbers here spill out of apartments and leap off the roofs into avenues packed with people and congested with cars. There’s still the hermetically sealed theatricality of backdrops and the candy-coated sheen of a musical—only Hollywood can make poverty look this appealing—but the background cast goes from about five in the ’61 version to 5,000 in ’21.
There’s something abstract and slightly unfinished about the ’61 West Side Story. It’s as if all this action takes place in a depopulated world. Story-wise, it does. The West Side of Manhattan, specifically Lincoln Center Neighborhood, is being razed to make room for a new performing arts center and luxury apartments. But not yet. Until that wrecking ball comes and takes out Doc’s drug store, there are still ruins to rumble over. It used to be Jets territory, they of European descent, but now these streets and playgrounds are home to the Sharks from Puerto Rico. The joke’s on both of them: It all belongs to master-builder Robert Moses and his urban renewal project. In a decade, it’ll be fur coats and diamond jewelry that line these streets.
But you know all this already, don’t you? You know about the dancing, the snapping, the singing. You know that life is all right in America—“if you’re all-white in America.” You know about Maria and how she feels pretty, and you know about Tony and his troublemaking friend Riff. And you know that when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet from your first cigarette, and you know all about those last dying days.
“When’s he going to talk about the casting, for crying out loud?” you’re thinking. Yeah, I’ll admit that’s the real headline here. Great as the ’61 version is, that not-so-old Hollywood practice of blackface mars it. Natalie Wood makes for a pretty poor Puerto Rican. But her makeup is nothing compared to what they tossed on Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to make Wood look Latin by comparison.
Thank god that’s gone here. Newcomer Rachel Zegler steps into Maria Vasquez’ shoes—and does her own singing, something Wood couldn’t—with David Alvarez playing brother Bernardo and Ariana DeBose as Anita. On the other side, Ansel Elgort is an improvement on Tony, and Mike Faist’s Riff may not have the athleticism Russ Tamblyn brought to the role 60 years ago, but he’s genuinely scary as one of the “can’t-make-it-Caucasians” with a sizeable chip on his shoulder.
So they fixed it, right? Sure. But is that the point? West Side is still a story about kids cutting each other up and gunning ’em down because they talk different, act different, and have different parents. Blackface and its many tentacles is a very upsetting thing to deal with while watching a movie, which makes Spielberg’s version a little more palatable to parents taking their kids to see a story of Shakespearean star-crossed lovers without having to explain why Charikis had to be dipped in mud before making his entrance. But then there’s the part where Maria points the gun at all the Sharks and Jets left standing and lectures them—and, ostensibly, us—about the futility of hate. “All of you, you all killed him. . .Not with bullets and guns, but with hate. Well, now I can kill, too, because now I have hate.” It’s one of those evergreen messages, but in 1961, no studio would’ve allowed someone who looked like Maria or talked like Maria to deliver that message. The audience wouldn’t have stood for it. So they made the white girl in brown makeup give the speech, and the movie won 10 Academy Awards. Fancy that, a speech about intolerance made at a time when intolerance was so casually on display that it filled the center of the frame. No one can touch Hollywood when it comes to having your cake and eating it too.
Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg’s West Side Story is a damn good movie. It’s hard to mess up material this good and harder still for Spielberg not to present an exciting frame. It’s a movie that’s easy to like, even love. But, there’s something about the whole shebang that leaves me wanting. Movies are arguably our greatest forms of entertainment disseminated on a mass level. They are also one of the clearest windows we have to understanding how we see ourselves. Watching the 1961 West Side Story 60 years later says an awful lot about how Americans saw themselves back then. And the 2021 remake says a lot about how we see ourselves now, especially when it comes to reclaiming a history paved over and pushed into corners. The only question left to wonder is: What will audiences think of us when they watch this West Side Story in 2081?
West Side Story (2021)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner
Based on the 1957 stage play with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum, Steven Spielberg
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Mike Faist
20th Century Studios, Rated PG-13, Running time 156 minutes, Opened Dec. 10, 2021.