West Side Story: From 1961 To 2021, Film Companion

A majestic reimagining of the classic romantic tragedy of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet into an elaborate musical brought West Side Story to life, first in 1957 as a Broadway musical and then on the silver screen under the same name. Since 1961, West Side Story has been one of the finest musicals ever made. Sixty years later, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg decided to cast his magic spell on the masterpiece and remake it.

West Side Story (1961) begins with the introduction of the two groups of rivals who want to control the streets of the west side of New York, in 1950s America- The Jets and The Sharks. They’re led by Riff and Bernardo respectively, and all hell breaks loose when Tony, a member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, Bernardo’s younger sister. They decide to call a rumble and fight each other, killing themselves and leaving poor Maria and Anita (Bernardo’s lover) heartbroken and grieving.

The frames are very interesting and so is the colour palette. There is ample use of red hues and red lights in the beginning of the film to signify impending danger. Tony is first introduced against the backdrop of a bright red brick wall, slightly hinting at forthcoming danger. Similarly in the song ‘Maria’, there’s continuous use of red light on Tony when he calls out her name and sings, all pointing to the fact that his affair with Maria will be fatal for him. Not only is Tony’s life in danger, but the lives of all the members of the two groups are in danger which is cleverly marked by setting the dance against a red backdrop. It’s beautiful to look at and at the same time it’s a clever use of the colour red, showing that this community dance is where the ill fate begins in the guise of young romance.

Apart from the colour palette, what else is striking and of importance is the use of sharp lighting. The songs and the dance numbers do a great job in keeping the artificial feel of the film alive throughout, but what alleviates it subtly is the use of sharp, uncanny lighting that is far from natural. It’s unnatural and eerie, and resembles the lighting of a staged play in many places, for example in the song ‘Tonight’.

Moving sixty years ahead, we have Spielberg’s version of West Side Story. While West Side Story remains West Side Story, however, it is in many ways different from the classic film and also surpasses it.

Beginning with characters, there are more layers to them, more depth and more story, giving the audience more room to feel for a character and identify with them. Tony shares with Maria how he once almost killed a kid in one of his rumbles and spent one year in jail which turned him into a new person. He feels guilty about his actions and since being pardoned, he has stayed away from street fights and worked hard and honest to make a living.

Getting to know where Tony’s change of heart comes from makes us feel more for him. Similarly, Chino, Maria’s fiancée arranged by Bernardo is more than a member of the The Sharks. He goes to university and plays chess. And Doc in the drugstore is replaced by Valentina who was once Doc’s lover. These additions and the presence of depth given to these characters have made them more appealing to us.

Another very significant contrast between the two versions is the remaking of the titular neighbourhood. The original movie begins with a bird’s eye view of the orderly midtown before moving to the dangerous Upper West Side of the city. On the other hand, in the new film, Spielberg manifests through the opening images of a demolished house the tension and anxiety of racism and power between the white Americans and the brown Puerto Ricans.

The costumes are also different; Anita’s yellow dress in the song ‘America’ is more vibrant and visually appealing in the 2021 remake than the purple dress in the 1961 version. Similarly, the gangs in the old film are consciously colour coded with the Sharks appearing mainly in shades of red and purple. While this colour coding of the costumes is present in the newer version too, it’s more subtle. The change of the colour of the costumes from bright hues in the beginning of the film, to darker shades of black and blue towards the end of the film is also a very clever artistic choice, hinting at the darkness about to befall them.

 

Leaving the technical details aside, there are several moments in Spielberg’s film that heightened the emotional appeal of the film to the audience. One that struck me the most was rearranging the songs and placing the happy and cheerful ‘I Feel Pretty’ just after the rumble where Tony kills Bernardo. Poor Maria, oblivious of the tragedy sings happily about her feelings of falling and being in love and it heightens the tragedy she’s yet to face . It’s almost like a reality check that’s thrown at the audience very subtly, about how people rejoice without knowing what tragedy can befall them the very next minute.

Something else that appealed to my emotions more in the new film was the character development of Tony. Unlike the old film, he doesn’t have any parents to speak highly and fondly of here. He’s an orphan clinging on to the affections he receives from the only parental figure in his life, Valentina. He also has a past and a job, because he is trying to rectify his character unlike the old Tony who is avoiding the Jets simply because he is bored. The character arc for Tony is well drawn and much more visible.

Changing the parental figure in Tony’s life from Doc to Valentina, provided more warmth in the equation shared between Tony and her. She has a motherly affection for Tony and lovingly advised him to stay away from Riff and avoid trouble. She also compassionately tries to inform Tony about Maria’s death in the end, and it is one of the most emotional and heartfelt scenes of the film.

The end of both the films are largely similar, barring the terrific shot of Maria seeing Chino and Tony in the same frame moments before Tony’s death. The attempted assault of Anita is also handled better, with more honesty.

Amidst the rumbles, the rough and rustic settings, the narrow alleyways of the Upper West Side and all the fights and killings, West Side Story stands out for how beautiful each shot is. Every shot, both in the old and the new version is framed with precision and care; it’s artistic to say the least. From the songs to the fights, everything has an aura of balletic element about it and it’s a delight to watch the swift and effortless movements which are poetic yet realistic at the same time. Very rarely can we come across beautiful and artistic street fight sequences like those in West Side Story.

We’re often under the impression that a remake of a classic film is bound to be unimpressive. However, after watching Spielberg’s West Side Story, I’m convinced otherwise. There have been so many artistic improvements that has alleviated both the look and the feel of the film. Of course, West Side Story (1961) will always remain a classic, but West Side Story (2021) will probably be considered a better version from the cinematic point of view.

West Side Story: From 1961 To 2021, Film Companion

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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