The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article contains spoilers for both versions of West Side Story…so go watch those first!
West Side Story has been one of my comfort movies/musicals ever since I was a young kid, first introduced to it by my mom who also loves it. The songs and exciting cinematography of the original 1961 film have always captivated me, along with Richard Beymer as Tony, who my family has always thought looks a lot like my grandfather at that time. All of this is to say that when it was announced that Steven Spielberg was going to direct a new version…I was very skeptical. Going to the theater I don’t think I have ever been so simultaneously excited and terrified to see a movie.
Now having seen the 2021 version and recently rewatching the classic, how do these movies compare?
As the title suggests, I am biased towards loving the original film. However, that does not mean I look past all of its problematic aspects. So, let’s talk about it! The most glaring issue with the original West Side Story is its casting. The musical depicts two rival groups: the Jets, New York natives, and the Sharks, Puerto Rican natives who have recently moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. However, most of the Sharks were not Puerto Rican. Natalie Wood (María) was of Russian and Ukrainian descent and George Chakiris (Bernardo) is Greek. Rita Moreno (Anita) was the only actress in the main cast who was Puerto Rican. Even then, Moreno has said that she had to wear darker makeup than her natural complexion, and when she spoke up to the makeup artist, he said “What, are you racist?” Unfortunately, this type of casting was a very common practice in Hollywood for many years.
For the 2021 adaptation, Spielberg emphasized on BBC’s Radio 4 Today how important it was that every member of the Sharks “needed to come from the Latinx communities. And without fail.” This is great and makes the story much more authentic, however, I can’t imagine a 2021 adaptation of this film not being made with a Latinx cast as this is one of the main reasons to make an updated film in the first place. A detail I enjoyed was the decision to include a lot of Spanish-speaking without subtitling. Spielberg told People, “If I subtitled the Spanish I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power of over the Spanish.” Although the original film includes Spanish speaking, it is simple phrases, where the new version includes conversations in Spanish and shows Tony learning Spanish so he can tell María he loves her.
Where the 2021 adaptation falls flat for me is the musicality. This is Spielberg’s first movie musical, and I find that to be pretty obvious. That is not to say that it was bad. On the contrary, this version perfectly fits in with the style of movie musicals we see today. The original was praised for being unlike other musicals of the time because it was dark and gritty, but watching it now it has that musical-ness that many modern viewers do not like. It’s whimsical, with most of the fights incorporating ballet. The new version represents how modern movie musicals are often more grounded in reality, with less suspension of disbelief. It is dark in the modern sense; the fights are much more like fights and the anger feels more hateful and discriminatory instead of the characters calling each other “buddy boy” and writing “Sharks suck” on a wall.
For modern viewers, they may enjoy the newer, darker approach because it feels more realistic. For me, this stylistic decision derails the story. The original film works because everything is over-the-top and fantastical. At the center of the story is a Romeo and Juliet-type couple who decide to get married in less than 24 hours after they meet. Nothing about that is realistic! So when you have a more realistic, gritty story where at the center there are two lovers who are making completely rash decisions, it was hard for me to believe in their love…because its not believable. No matter how amazing of acting Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort may have done as María and Tony, their love story felt like trivial background to me. The moment that highlighted this for me was the deliberate decision to move the song “I Feel Pretty” after the scene where Bernardo is killed by Tony. María is singing about how beautiful and in love she feels meanwhile her lover just killed her brother? In the original, there is an overall sense of lightness and innocence to María and Tony’s story, but in the 2021 film this scene felt…awkward.
However, I cannot criticize the new film without praising the addition of the character Valentina as a new role for Rita Moreno. I loved the way they wrote in a new character that incorporated her seamlessly into the story, giving her way more than a simple cameo. One of the darkest scenes is Anita’s assault at Doc’s, which must have been a difficult scene for Moreno to film in the original. In the 2021 film, Moreno’s character is the one to stop the Jets from assaulting Anita, bringing to light a new conversation about how Valentina doesn’t feel like she has a place to fit in. The decision to make her sing “Somewhere” instead of María and Tony was so heartwarming and was one of my favorite changes from the original film.
Both versions of West Side Story bring me that excitement and comfort I have always had watching it, which was shocking considering how nervous I was about the 2021 adaptation. Both versions have their shining moments and both also have aspects that are fundamentally working against them from the moment they were made (notably Elgort’s sexual assault allegations that made his performance especially difficult to watch).
Although the original film will always have a special place in my heart, I have many reasons to love and revisit the 2021 adaptation.