Part-Time Review: West Side Story (2021)


The idea of remaking Robert Wise’s West Side Story from 1961 made me apprehensive when I first heard it. To then hear that Steven Spielberg was taking it on actually made me even more apprehensive. You see, my general take on remaking iconic properties that are still beloved is that you only do it if you have a banger of an idea to update it and there’s some young up and comer who wants to show their creative chops by putting their spin on it. However, a living legend like Spielberg tackling a golden icon? Why? In interviews he mentions that it's always been a dream of his because of how influential it was in his childhood. I get it - but is that really a strong creative reason? For what it's worth, my thoughts below assume you are familiar with the 1961 original.

The original wasn’t perfect (I gave it a B+), but it was a darn good film that took a lot of risks and is completely embedded in the time period with its sound, dance style, and story. What angle is Spielberg going to take? A creative reimagining or a light remake? The opening minutes reveal his hand – this is a minor update filtered through Spielberg's cinematic craft. As much as I love Spielberg, his camera work, and his overall cinematic eye – what’s the purpose of putting all that skill to a minor update?

As the story progresses its major beats even the music doesn’t seem to have much of an update - which isn't necessarily bad - just an odd choice to me. I am not a close follower of the Broadway versions or a musical expert, but the iconic score and songs seem to have gotten a freshening-up but are largely the originals. I like a few of the songs, “America” “Tonight” and “Gee Officer Krupke” being my favorites – but the rest strike me as mostly trifles or a little too melodramatic. Others like the gym “Mambo” or “Cool” are more about the choreography and set piece than the music/lyrics themselves. That’s my subjective opinion though, others favorites will vary.

Spielberg’s direction in the musical set pieces are great here and his work on the Gym dance sequence and “America” really stand out here. The issue is that these were standouts for the original film as well. How can anyone watch the gym dance sequence or "America" in the original film or the Spielberg update and not smile the whole time? Whether you like the rest of either film or not - these are both cinematic showstoppers that just feel so alive with life! Where the original “America” bursts with great choreography, chemistry, wit, and musical excellence the Spielberg update bursts out of the set bringing in the neighborhood, retains that great choreography and music, inserts more visual/thematic easter eggs, and still makes itself an energetic lightning strike that demands the neighborhood join by the end. Is it all better though? Take a watch and then you tell me.

I think Spielberg’s version of “Cool” may make a bit more thematic sense, but it will never be remembered like the original iconic scene in the parking garage – not even close. Moving it to before the rumble also means there is even less notable numbers later in the film. I think “Gee Officer Krupke” is better staged, but it’s not a revolution. "I Feel Pretty" and "Tonight" have a similar upgrade - but neither are a revolution either. 

In the end though, is the Spielberg that much better? I think certain themes are better developed here, the film feels like it has more balance in tone, substance, and style than the 1961 original that clearly favored style. However, with that balance comes a surprising tameness – Spielberg's version feels a bit “scrubbed for modern sensibilities” in both good and bad ways. I could sit here and give you a rundown of what each film did better or worse, yet it’s still a Romeo and Juliet story about love at first sight denied at its core. If you never got that jazzed about it to begin with (like me) then the benefits of Spielberg's craft of Robert Wise here are marginal in my opinion.

Is the 2021 film still alive with life and featuring some wonderful set pieces? Absolutely - though Spielberg's comes down to earth a lot more (there's that balance). Does it still also feel too long, lack any great signature songs (IMO) in the last 45 minutes of the film, and center a love story that fails to engage me? Yup, guilty just like the 1961 original. I really don't know which one I'd pick as the better to be honest. Spielberg's is probably a better film overall, but I feel like the heights of the 1961 original are just higher and makes me favor that one a bit - for whatever that means. Both are strong films worth your time. Give them both a view if you have 5 hours - otherwise just watch the gym dance and "America" from both films and you won't be disappointed.