West Side Story: A Review

Hannah Bickom, Staff Writer

The movie “West Side Story” (2021) is set in the late 1950’s and tells the Shakespearean-esque tragedy of two teenage gangs: the Sharks and the Jets. The movie is a retelling of the 1961 film of the same name, which was adapted from a 1957 broadway musical. In both films, the Sharks are a Puerto Rican gang, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), who are clashing with the Jets, a white American gang led by Riff (Mike Faist), whose racism and territorialism fuel their hatred of the Sharks. During a school dance which was held in order to lessen tensions between the gangs, Tony (Ansel Elgort), the best friend of Riff, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), the younger sister of Bernado, meet and immediately fall in love. The love between these two characters causes conflict between the two gangs to escalate, leading to a deadly rumble in which both gang leaders are killed, and to the murder of Tony at the very end of the film. 

While both the 1961 and 2021 films follow the same basic story, there are several major differences between the two. First, the 2021 film switches up the order and locations of many of the scenes and musical performances. The 2021 film also added certain scenes to the movie, like one where Tony attempted to learn Spanish in order to impress Maria, and a scene where Tony and Maria go on a first date. 

 Another difference lies in the casting and development of certain characters. In the 1961 film, the character Maria is played by Natalie Wood, a white American actress. The 2021 film cast Rachel Zegler, a Columbian-American actress, to play the Puerto Rican character. The 2021 film also cast Rita Moreno, who starred as Anita in the original movie, as Valentina, a Puerto Rican shopkeeper married to a white man. In the 1961 movie, the shopkeeper was a white man named Doc. The character Anybodys, who was a tomboy rejected by the Jets in the 1961 movie, was written as a trans character in the 2021 film and is played by non binary actor Ezra Menas.  

In technical aspects, the 2021 film is much more impressive than the 1961 adaptation. Considering it was directed by Steven Spielberg, it was expected to be a well made movie. The movie had much better acting and singing performances. I think all the actors of both movies did great jobs in their respective roles, but something about the performances in the 2021 film were more compelling and believable. The 2021 film also had generally better camera quality and more impressive looking sets. One reason for this lies in the more advanced technology we have for filmmaking, and the movie’s 100 million dollar budget certainly helped. 

In terms of story, I think the 2021 film expands on the original idea presented in the first movie, and creates more in-depth character arcs and relationships. For example, Rita Morena’s character served as a branch between the two gangs because she was a Latina woman married to a white man, which arguably led to a more in depth examination of the conflict. Having Anybodys be a trans character allowed the character to have a more clear and defined arc about being accepted into the Jets as a man. Having more scenes with Tony and Maria together allowed us to see their love grow. This added onto their story, and made their love for each other more realistic than it was in the original movie.

For the most part, the order of scenes makes just as much sense in the 2021 version of the movie as it did in the 1961 version. Personally, I preferred the scene where the song “Cool” was sung in the 2021 film, but I think the songs “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” were more sensibly placed in the 1961 version. Overall, I think both movies have merits in the world of cinema. The 1961 “West Side Story” had a massive cultural impact and was impressive for its time. The 2021 “West Side Story” was able to expand on and explore the ideas presented in the first movie, and was able to use modern technologies and talent in order to make an enjoyable and engaging film.