Road to the Oscars: West Side Story

The makings of a worthwhile remake

Luis Rios

More stories from Luis Rios


Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Poster for West Side Story (2021) directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler

The 2022 Academy Awards are set to air on March 27. The Round Up will be releasing weekly reviews of the movies that are nominated for this year’s Best Picture category leading up to the event.

Director Steven Spielberg with his iconic catalog of war, sci-fi and film epics, adds a musical to his repertoire with his remake of West Side Story, creating a classic from something that was already a classic.   

Adapted from the original Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale that takes place during the 1950s. Two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, struggle for control in their neighborhood on the Upper West Side of New York City while two star-crossed lovers from both sides struggle with their forbidden romance.  

When Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story released in 1961, the film became a highlight for Latino and Hispanic culture as there weren’t many movies that represented them. As a sign of the times, Spielberg’s remake of the musical does the story a great service by casting actual Latinos in Latino roles.  

Along with that, there is a certain magic to the music, choreography and set design that makes Spielberg’s iterations far grander than the original due to advancements in film production. Yet, with the grandiose elements throughout the movie, the 2021 version of the Broadway musical is gritter and far more violent version; it heightens the film in scenes of tension and tragedy. Another change between both films is the context, certain aspects that vilifies the Jets compared to the 1961 original and even alters why Tony (Ansel Elgort) left the gang.  

Some of the characters really stood out among their cast; for example, the newly added character of Valentina who is played by Rita Moreno who played Anita in the 1961 film, Ariana DeBose who plays Anita in this version and most especially Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera). His role in the film, along with other side characters, were written with more personality and importance than originally intended in the story. Overall, every musical performance is a highlight for the film. From the gym scene to Moreno performing “Somewhere”, everyone dancing or singing on screen gives it their all.  

Even though the plot is given more context, it still follows the same main beats, meaning it falls to the same narrative criticisms. With the Romeo and Juliet inspired trope, it falters in scenes that faltered in the 1961 version that become annoying melodramatic hiccup to an overall distinguished experience. While the performances are outstanding, West Side Story has illogical decisions from a few characters that cannot be explained without reaching.  

The positives do outweigh the negatives though, making Spielberg’s West Side Story another knockout picture from the director. Along with the glamorous and amazing musical performances throughout, the film’s setting is incredibly inspired and immersive to the point it makes it difficult to not adore.  

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

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