It has been over 50 years since film audiences were introduced to the tragic love story of Tony and Maria. “West Side Story” originally premiered on Broadway in 1957, with six Tony nominations and two wins. In 1961, the critically acclaimed musical was adapted for the big screen and won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, making it the musical movie with the most Oscar wins. In 2021, Steven Speilberg put his vision of the story on screen, starring Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler. While this vision may not have done amazing at the box offices, it has received critical acclaim with seven Oscar nominations. Even though Speilberg did make some creative changes, this film was mostly the same compared to the 1961 version. This begs the question, why did we need a new version of this film if we could just turn on the original?
In this musical retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” the setting is 1950s New York. Instead of the Monatagues and the Capulets, we have the Jets and the Sharks, two rival gangs. The Jets are white and lead by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks are Puerto Rican and lead by Bernardo (David Alvarez). They fight with each other every chance they get as they are both trying to gain power over the West Side of Manhattan. The lives of both of these gangs change when Tony (Elgort), a Jet and Riff’s best friend, falls in love with Maria (Zegler), a Shark girl and Bernardo’s sister. This does not go well with either of the groups. Theifnor brawls become more violent as emotions run high. Tony is mentored by his boss Valentina (Rita Moreno), the owner of the general store, and Maria is mentored by Anita (Ariana Debose), Bernardo’s girlfriend who is like a sister to Maria. Despite the guidance, no one is prepared for the chaos that will ensue.
A main thing that makes this different from the original is, of course, a new set of actors. The talent certainly lived up to their predecessors. Considering the original Tony and Maria had other people’s singing voices dubbed over, that is a point for this film. Zegler was found in an open casting call and had not been in anything professional before, and I was really impressed with her performance. She was able to show Maria’s innocence in how she talks about how unfamiliar she is with love and her positive attitude despite how she is surrounded by gangs. She also shows her strength when she stands up for her love for Tony and how she will not let anyone get in her way in her fight for love and independence. Zegler did this all with a fantastic singing voice and I hope to hear that voice more in the future. I felt Elgort did a fine job with his performance. He had a nice singing voice which was shown in his belt in the song “Maria.” He did a lovely job showing Tony’s passion for love, for his friends and how he is trying to clean up his act away from his previous crimes. The stand outs were Riff and Anita. Faist brought a lot of power to the role of Riff. He owned the scenes he was in. From standing up to rival gangs, encouraging his friends to gain confidence, the violence he inflicts and the violence he receives. Riff has a hard life and Faist let that show. Plus he led dance routines like nobody’s business. The way he moved his feet in “Jet Song” and “Cool” captivated me. Faist has a history of Broadway training, and that came across in this performance. Debose also carried her scenes, showing how Anita is a strong confident woman that can sing amazingly. She speaks her mind proudly with a commanding voice that makes everyone listen, even gang members. She confronts Maria about the dangers of dating Tony, explaining to Bernardo why she loves America and stepping up to the Jets for Maria. She will go as far as she can when it comes to her beliefs. “A Boy Like That” was a stand out song for her that showed her powerful spirit and powerhouse vocals. Debose has been nominated for her performance in this film and following in the footsteps of Rita Moreno’s performance of Anita in the original, I can see her winning that Oscar.
The reason the original film was a classic was because this is a very exciting story. The excitement was captured in this version as well. From the vibrant songs to the violent brawls and everything in between. This is a story that will have you singing along one second and crying the next second. All of the characters have complexities to them and that is what makes you so invested. People like Riff and Bernardo are violent gang members, but they still care so much about their friends and family. Tony and Maria support the people around them, but they also hold on to each other with a love that is deep and true. Valentina and Anita both try to protect the people close to them, but they think about their own wants as well. Every character is wonderful and they make the story special. Even if you already know how it is going to end, since it is based on Romeo and Juliet, you are still glued to your seat, curious as to what will happen and the deaths are shocking. It is a thrilling story of love, strength, emotions, race and friendship, but this version did not bring anything that drew you in more than the original. The main change was Rita Moreno playing the store owner, Valentina, when the original was a character named Doc played by a white man. This movie explains that Valentina is Doc’s widow, mostly as a wink to Rita Moreno being in the original. Other than that, most of the changes were changing song order/locations, more Spanish being spoken by the Puerto Rican characters and a character named Anybodys that was previously seen as a tomboy is now seen as transgender. None of the actual plot was changed, no songs were added and the motivations were still unchanged. Even though it was not a carbon copy film, it did not do anything memorable enough to warrant the need for a revival. Usually revival movies are made as a cash grab and I believe that is probably true for this film as well. Despite this being an entertaining watch, I do not see it going down in history like the original.
“West Side Story” did not do as well in theaters as expected, but now people do not have to leave their homes to see this film. On March 2, the film was made available on Disney Plus and HBO Max. I would recommend watching this film as it is enjoyable, just do not go in with high expectations. If you want to see if this lives up to the original, or you just want to see a heartbreaking romance with a catchy soundtrack, watch the new “West Side Story” today.