Spielberg, Kushner and Peck pay tribute to the original film by including several throwbacks to certain moments in the 1961 film. Like the original film, this remake sparked lively discussions among audiences.
Some of the film’s most memorable moments are direct tributes to the original, but there are also many differences between the two. Discussions of the original film include the vibrant, choreographed production numbers by Jerome Robbins.
So let’s start on the right foot if you are yet to see the film…
The 2021 movie is not a remake of the 1961 movie.
Movie fans discussed the colourful, kinetic dance numbers from the 50s and 60s. The 1961 film West Side Story is a co-directing effort of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, but its roots lie in the 1957 Broadway musical.
Robbins’ directorial debut, “West Side Story,” was adapted from the novel “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare and featured a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book simply titled “West Side Story.”
The West Side Story is not a remake but a skillfully executed reimagining and there lies many differences. And what are those West Side Story remake differences?
- The costumes for the Sharks and the Jets in the film stay appropriate to the era keeping that quality from the original intact, but subtle colour changes make it a little harder to guess gang affiliation, a little more toned-down.
- The original film was criticized for using white American actors to portray Puerto Rican characters. In the remake, Spielberg announced that all of the Sharks will be played by Latinx actors.
- The choreography in the fight scenes is more realistic than it was in the original. Although the moves are still graceful, still described as balletic, there is a more brutal quality to them. In the opening number, Sharky thrusts a nail into Baby John’s earlobe for example, the early days of ear piercings gracefully filmed.
- Anita and Bernardo get in a neighbourhood-wide dance battle that mirrors the one in “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s homage to Washington Heights.
- The beautiful ballad ‘Somewhere’ is sung by the character Valentina (Moreno) in the movie “West Side Story 2021.” In the movie, she sings it as a plea for racial harmony.
- Did you know that the original West Side Story is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? The story is set in the 1950s, with Puerto Rican immigrants playing the role of both the Sharks and Jets. The setting of this action-packed drama makes it a little more modern.
- The film was rumoured to have been in the works since 2013. When the film was announced, it was slated for a 2020 release date. However, these plans fell through due to a number of factors. Tony Kushner (writer of Angels in America) was originally set to direct the film but clashed with producers over his vision for the project.
He was replaced by Steven Spielberg in 2018 after Spielberg’s daughter Sasha convinced him that Kushner would “ruin” the movie if he remained involved as its director. Since Spielberg is known for working on lengthy projects (like his adaptation of Ready Player One), he made sure that the West Side Story remake was done right.
As anyone who has seen Jaws or Saving Private Ryan can attest, Steven Spielberg is an expert at creating suspenseful action scenes that draw viewers in and keep them wanting more; this skill was certainly useful when adapting West Side Story.
- West Side Story was Zegler’s first acting role. Zegler as Maria, a role previously played by Natalie Wood in the 1961 film. Zegler is a 17-year-old high school student from New Jersey who was discovered via a video submission and has since been training with director Steven Spielberg’s daughter, Sasha Spielberg. “We were looking for someone who could sing and dance,” said West Side Story producer Kevin McCollum, “and [Zegler] had all those things.” “[It] made my heart stop,” he added about seeing her audition tape for the first time.
- The Sharks and the Jets have a clearer backstory in the movie, including historical references to their role as vigilantes in their community. The Jets sing about current problems, including police prejudice against them, but also talk about their past conflicts with other gangs. The movie is more accurate about the history of each gang. The Sharks are portrayed as defending their community from hostile outsiders, while the Jets have a troubled past with other gangs.
- Chino is a more prominent character in this version, and we get to see more of him than in the original. He is still one of Bernardo’s closest friends, but he doesn’t belong to the Sharks this time around. Chino is a shy university student, and doesn’t like to be involved with inner-gang problems. We learn that Chino will not be joining the group of people who hunt down Tony at the end of the story.
- In this version, the Sharks dance up and down the streets of New York surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd. In the newer version of the film, Anita and Bernardo start the famous sing-song with the other Sharks from their apartment at the beginning. The song and the scene moves around the apartment block and into different parts of the surrounding neighbourhood, and all of the Sharks end up dancing in their street by the end of it.
- In the 1961 version of West Side Story, the Jets’ taunts and physical attacks toward Anita are choreographed like it’s a dance scene. In contrast, the more modern film version shows the Jets’ girlfriends make an effort to help taunted Anita. However, it was Valentina’s intervention that stopped their attack.
- The subject of racism, while much more in the subtext, is addressed and easy to see through the Puerto Rican area by mentioning Anita’s skin colour and having her call Bernardo “jincho.” Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita, is Afro-Latina, a fact that’s incorporated into the movie when Anita asks Bernardo if he’s excluding her from family discussions because she’s “prieta” (dark-skinned). In “America,” Bernardo sings that things are easier if you’re “white in America,” and Anita quickly reminds him that’s he’s “jincho,” which means pale or white.
Which of the two versions did you prefer? The 1961 or 2021 West Side Story remake and why?