Grade:  A-
Rated PG-13

In 1961, the average American couldn’t go to see a Broadway show. But they did go to movie theaters in droves, and West Side Story was a blockbuster of a movie that surprised audiences with gang members who danced and sang in an updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in then-contemporary New York City and featuring two warring gangs instead of feuding families. The Robert Wise-directed film received 11 Oscar nominations and won 10 of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.

So why would anyone even consider remaking a film so lauded and beloved? On one of the 90 minutes of bonus features on this 4K/Blu-ray release, Spielberg provided an answer—several of them.

First, Spielberg said he was not remaking a film. He was making a second film version based on the 1957 Broadway play. He reasoned that if West Side Story has been performed all over the world with different casts, why couldn’t there be a second film version?

Second, he was personally motivated. Spielberg said West Side Story was the first Broadway music he was exposed to at age 10, and that he basically “commandeered” the album his parents had bought. He loved it, and it spawned in him a love of musicals. As a result, Spielberg said that all his life he’s wanted to make a musical version of West Side Story.

A third and most compelling reason didn’t come from Spielberg. It came from my college-age daughter, who, since the film’s release, has been re-watching it and playing the songs constantly. She and many of her friends liked the music and some of the dancing from the first film version, but they weren’t exactly crazy about the characters or the narrative.

Enter Spielberg, who pinpointed the biggest difference between his new film version and the original:  the 1961 film was a hybrid—part cinematic and part theatrical. He wanted to create a film that was more fully cinematic, and to do that he had to push it away from the theatrical and make it more realistic. He had to push it away from the moist-eyed spotlight solos sung in private or in closed spaces and open it up to where they were sung with active movements (and reactions) on the streets of New York. He also added small touches of realism throughout the film and created a narrative based on logic rather than the limitations of stage.

Tony, instead of singing “Maria” while looking skyward in solitude, sings it as he walks the streets of New York searching for her, at one point walking through a flock of pigeons an older woman had been feeding—prompting the birds to take flight and a stunned reaction from her. There’s more diegetic music in Spielberg’s version. Earlier, when Tony’s gang sang the “Jet Song,” they were also roaming on the street. Reactions included a man getting out of a vehicle who starts to get back in again as they pass, and parents pulling their children closer to them to keep them out of harm’s way.

Spielberg said West Side Story is “sadly” even more relevant now than it was then, and he puts more focus on the racial divisions that might have been overlooked by viewers back in 1961. West Side Story wasn’t just about two gangs fighting over turf, it’s a film about whites scared of losing what’s theirs and the reactive racism they hurl toward Puerto Rican immigrants who are afraid of not getting their fair share. Spielberg changed or added a few lines to the screenplay that highlight this theme and make the original lyrics from the song “America” less comic and more seriocomic.

Spielberg also included a police lieutenant in his version and a more believable reason for Tony to be reluctant to have anything to do with his old gang:  he’s on parole. There’s more “language,” and Latinx characters speak Spanish (a few swearwords included), with no subtitles provided, only context. Yet, for all his emphasis on realism and updating the film for a new generation, Spielberg somehow manages to give viewers a film that feels contemporary enough to have been made in 2021 but also captures the essence of the original Broadway production, which Spielberg follows pretty closely.

In the 1961 film, Rita Moreno (“Anita”) was the only Puerto Rican actor, and Spielberg “vowed to make Latinx a rule,” casting all Latinx actors for Latinx parts—extras included. For the Sharks’ big dance scene (“America”) set in the middle of a real intersection, Spielberg had a cast of 30 Latinx actors backed up by 400 Latinx extras. What they contribute isn’t just authenticity—there’s a vibrancy here that comes from the heart, just as the dueling anthems scene in Casablanca is made more powerful because so many of the cast were themselves immigrants who had fled Europe because of the Nazis.

Spielberg had a lifetime to think about how he would reshoot a film about “white” Tony (Ansel Elgort) and best friend/Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist), the Latinx Maria (Rachel Zegler) and her brother/Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), and best friend Anita (Ariana DeBose). What he delivered was a film that’s different yet similar, a true update that feels more contemporary and just as successful. The proof is in the numbers. Rotten Tomatoes critics gave the original film a 93 percent “fresh” rating and Spielberg’s version a 92 percent “fresh,” but Spielberg won the popular vote:  94 percent to 84 percent. Although the 2021 film received three fewer Oscar nominations than the original, it will be interesting to see if DeBose will win an Oscar as Moreno—who plays the shop owner Tony works for and has a song in this version—did before her.  If I were inclined to wager, I’d say yes, though the whole cast does a pretty amazing job. The original film ran 156 minutes and was shown in theaters with an intermission; Spielberg’s version is the same length, and to his credit it doesn’t feel long, even without the intermission.

Entire family: No (age 10 and up)
Run time:  156 minutes Color
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  English Dolby Atmos
Studio/Distributor:  20th Century Fox
Bonus Features:  A-
Includes:  4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Code
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Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking

Language:  6/10—A few f-bombs creep in, along with some lesser Spanish and English swearwords and another handful of god damns

Sex:  4/10—With the exception of a rape scene that never gets started, it’s all pretty subtle: some kissing, some sexual references, and one scene where a couple gets out of the same bed (nothing shown)

Violence:  6/10—In the movie’s big fight scene characters are whipped with chains, beaten with pipes, pierced and stabbed—though the only real graphic part is a nail in the ear with visible blood; still, part of the realistic updating is that there’s more violence

Adult situations:  6/10—References to drugs and weed, and several characters smoke, and yeah, it has Shakespeare’s intensely sad ending

Takeaway:  Spielberg reinforces what a terrific production West Side Story is and how wonderful the music from Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim remains—perhaps the strongest group of songs in an American musical ever