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    The New "West Side Story" Is Better Than The Iconic 1961 Film In So Many Ways, And Here's Why

    Rita Moreno's performance will wreck you.

    Like a lot of people (i.e. basically everyone), I'm a BIG fan of the iconic 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story aka, one of, if not the, greatest musical films of all time. For the record, it won 10 Academy Awards, which is STILL the record holder for the most wins by a musical. And that's A LOT of Oscars for any movie, not just a musical.

    United Artists

    So, when I heard they were doing a remake, I was skeptical AF...even with the legendary Steven Spielberg at the helm. However, as much as I love the OG West Side Story, I fully acknowledge that that film was not without its problems — from whitewashing the lead roles and brown-facing others to dubbing over actors' singing voices...let's just say these were less than ideal situations.

    United Artists

    And I'll cut right to the chase, because...honestly? Spielberg's West Side Story is great. In fact, I dare say it's better in many ways (although, for me personally, not ALL ways) than the 1961 film. And here are 14 reasons why you should watch it:

    BTW, before we get going, you should know there aren't any major spoilers ahead. But, also, the musical has been around for over 60 years, so, ya know...

    1. First of all, let's acknowledge the biggest improvement to the 1961 film that this new adaptation has made: casting actual Latinx actors in Latinx roles.

    Ilda Mason as Luz, Ariana DeBose as Anita, and Ana Isabelle as Rosalia walking down a hall
    Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios

    Can't hammer this home enough: representation matters. And this is something the new West Side Story gets right. 

    While Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita back in the day, is of Puerto Rican descent, none of the other leads and almost none of the supporting cast (who portray Latinx characters) in the 1961 film were of Puerto Rican, let alone Latinx, descent — TRULY wild for a story that's half about the Puerto Rican American experience.

    Speaking with Time, Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria in the new film, said, "Authenticity is really important when it comes to West Side Story, and authenticity in Latin identity comes in so many different shapes and sizes and colors. We have so many people from so many different walks of life in this movie that are being represented whether they were born and raised in Puerto Rico, Cuba, [or] whether their parents were born here, like me. My parents were born here, but my abuelita was not — she came from Colombia in the ‘60s to have my mom. "

    In the same interview, Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita and is of Afro-Latinx descent, added, "I’m a Black woman. So right there, we’re [her and Rita Moreno] going to be different because the way that I walk through the world every day is very different than the way that Rita walks through the world. And that’s where I began: how does this woman walk through the world in 1951?"

    2. And the second biggest improvement? Letting the lead actors actually sing their roles.

    20th Century Studios

    So, quick setup: One of the most unsung (no pun intended) heroes in film history was Marni Nixon, who often provided the "singing" voice for famous movie performances, including Natalie Wood's Maria in the 1961 West Side Story. (Nixon also famously provided the singing voice for Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle in 1964's My Fair Lady film and Deborah Kerr's Anna in 1956's The King and I.)

    According to Nixon, though, Wood did not want to be dubbed at all for West Side Story. And, supposedly, Wood was led to believe that she was going to be doing all the recording. Who lied to whom? IDK. But one thing's certain — it sucked for both of them. Wood got dubbed and Nixon was told she couldn't tell anyone she did it.

    Sure, Wood's singing voice was probably nowhere near the level of Nixon's, and Wood was certainly cast in the role of Maria for her "star power," but if Spielberg's version of West Side Story proves anything, it's that YES, you can find authentic talent who can do it all. 

    3. Rita Moreno (who is also an executive producer on the film) will absolutely bring a tear to your eye, if not several. Seriously, the EGOT winner is almost 90 years old and her acting is still first-class. She even has a heartbreaking musical number.

    Rita Moreno as Valentina, siting in the drug store, chatting with Tony
    20th Century Studios

    Moreno plays a newly created character in this film, Valentina, who is the widow of Doc (the original owner of the local drug store). However, Valentina serves the same purpose as Doc in this version — as a kind of mentor to the local teens, and also Tony's friend and employer. 

    Moreno doesn't have a ton of screen time in the film, but man does she make an impact. Her delivery is top notch and I legitimately wouldn't be surprised if she was nominated for another Academy Award.

    Interestingly, and you may have picked up on this in the teaser trailer, Valentina also sings the heartbreaking song "Somewhere" — which, of course, differs from the 1961 film, which has Tony and Maria singing it. There's something extra bittersweet about watching Moreno, 60 years later, sing this sad but hopeful tune.

    4. Although she may be a newcomer, Rachel Zegler (Maria) — who's basically a real-life Disney princess — will absolutely blow you away.

    20th Century Studios

    I know, I know, West Side Story is like Natalie Wood's most famous role. And because she's iconically tied to Maria, it's really hard to picture anyone else in that part. But, I'll be honest, Zegler REALLY gives her a run for her money.

    If you don't know the story, Zegler impressively landed the role of Maria after seeing a notice on Twitter for an open casting call back in January 2018. She submitted a video of herself singing "Tonight" and "Me Siento Hermosa" ("I Feel Pretty"), and the rest is history.

    Of course, Zegler isn't just a talented singer, she can really act too! Sure, she may not be as seasoned as her costars, but her raw talent is there and when she brings the emotions...oof, get ready.

    5. In fact, all the actors, especially the supporting cast, in this new version are insanely talented.

    20th Century Studios

    Ariana DeBose, as she mentioned in the Time interview, truly makes the role of Anita her own and her performance is just as good, in its own way, in comparison to Moreno's. In fact, the "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" number between DeBose and Zegler practically had me bawling in my seat.

    David Alvarez brings a serious athletic energy (in this adaptation he's given a backstory as a boxer — more on that in a minute) to the role of Bernardo, and I'm here for it. 

    However, if there's one small note I have (and it's really small), it's that I preferred Russ Tamblyn's acrobatic and fun performance as Tony's BFF Riff to Mike Faist's more angry "hooligan" performance. But, frankly, it's like comparing apples to oranges. They're both great, it's just a matter of what you prefer. 

    And, in case you're wondering, Ansel Elgort is also great in the movie. He brings a very swoon-worthy performance to the screen, and yeah, he can sing!

    6. The characters are WAY more developed in this version. With actual backstories, Tony, Maria, Bernardo, and heck, even Chino are less caricature and more human.

    Riff and Bernardo stare down each other face to face with Tony looking on
    20th Century Studios

    In this film, Bernardo works part-time as a boxer (he's LITERALLY fighting to take care of his sister!), Anita has dreams of opening a dress shop, and Chino is a mild-mannered accountant who has a bright future working in an office someday. 

    Meanwhile, Tony has a way more fleshed out backstory (turns out he spent time in jail and came out a changed man) and we learn how Riff and the rest of the Jets come from poverty, abuse, and "the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians." 

    There's a lot to unpack, way more so than the original film, and there are a lot of great layers to these characters and their stories that tackle subjects like racism, xenophobia, social class, gender, and many topics that are still applicable today.

    7. New York City feels less like a backdrop and more like a character.

    A night time shot in the street of New York City outside the department store, Gimbels
    20th Century Studios

    Growing up watching the 1961 film, although I obviously knew it was set in New York City, I only ever got a vague sense of WHERE in the city the movie took place. The older film opens with flyover shots of various buildings in Manhattan and then lands on a concrete basketball court in a run down neighborhood. In a pre-Google Maps era, who knew where we were.

    Well, from the get-go Spielberg wants you to know exactly where this takes place, opening on a sign showing the development of (the eventual) Lincoln Center. In fact, you can literally see street signs that say "68th Street" and "Broadway" in the background, too, in case you need to be reminded this all takes place literally on the west side of Manhattan.

    Where the 1961 film felt very stage-life (which, I still find enjoyable), Spielberg does the most to really ground scenes and the action in New York — racing under the elevated train, riding the subway uptown, dancing in Gimbels department store...there's a lot more of New York being shown off in this film.

    8. The iconic fire escape balcony scene (which, of course, pays homage to Romeo and Juliet, which the musical was inspired by) is GORGEOUS and, I have to admit, trumps the one from 1961.

    Maria up high on a fire escape looking down at Tony who approaches down the alleyway
    20th Century Studios

    Yes, yes, the look is, on paper, the same — a quiet alleyway between brick buildings lined with endless fire escapes — but there's something extra magical about the way the whole "Tonight" scene plays out in this new version.

    The lighting is super romantic, the set is grand, and the action of Tony climbing higher and higher up the escape to Maria is very well choreographed. All of this combined with that iconic song is truly just *chef's kiss*.

    9. In a bold move, there are no English subtitles in the film. And, frankly, I thought it totally worked...because, GUESS WHAT? The film didn't need it.

    20th Century Studios

    There are definitely going to be people who complain about not having English subtitles for the Spanish dialogue in the film (or even having characters then "translate" what they said for the audience by repeating dialogue in English) but I am not one of those people. 

    When characters were having entire conversations in Spanish it's pretty clear what the inference is even if you can't understand the language (like me!). And if you DO understand Spanish, great! You'll have an even more layered experience!

    10. There was a lot of thoughtful effort put in to make sure that the Puerto Rican American characters and storylines felt full and authentic, and it shows.

    Bernardo kissing Anita behind a curtain of dress making material
    20th Century Studios

    Early on in the film, there's a "new" song (new to the film, but not like, in the world) that's been added called "La Borinqueña," which is the Puerto Rican national anthem. This is just one of the many small, but impactful, details that Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have weaved into the story.

    According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Kushner, on top of his own research, relied on translators, dialect coaches, a committee of the film’s actors and more, to ensure that West Side Story‘s Puerto Rican representation could 'look true' and feel authentic to the core of the community as possible."

    And Ana Isabelle, who plays one of the Shark girls (Rosalia) and was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said that her experience with Spielberg and Kushner was a truly “collaborative process,” explaining that Spielberg, in particular, was “taking care of every single detail in the movie.” She continued, “Tony got our opinions, and we were really raw with him. He was like, ‘OK, noted,’ and he actually fixed stuff.”

    11. The original film is well-known for its groundbreaking choreography, and while this new version has its own take on choreography (by Justin Peck), it still pays beautiful homage to Jerome Robbins, who choreographed and co-directed the 1961 film.

    Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios

    Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, actor Kevin Csolak (who plays Shark member Diesel), said, “Justin Peck did a beautiful job breaking down what Jerome Robbins did and then working from the essence of that. The movement I think is going to be a little different for people who have seen the Broadway show or original film, but this is so much more intimate. You really get what I think the musical did and what the original film did. We just zoomed in a bit.”

    12. The cinematography is beautiful and, in true Spielberg fashion, the camera really soars through the movie — which is GREAT for a musical.

    20th Century Studios

    Shot by frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński (Lincoln, Munich, War of the Worlds, Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's I need to go on?!) there's a lot of VERY dramatic lighting, clever framing, and interesting camera movements happening throughout the film. 

    For me, Kamiński's style doesn't ALWAYS work with the story, especially when there are some really fun, light numbers, but if you're looking for drama...he's got plenty of it. 

    A lot of the best shots from the movie are in the trailer (because, ugh, that always happens), but there really are some great ones in this movie that are truly unforgettable.

    13. Under the baton of conductor and LA Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, the music is still as good today as it was when it first hit the stage 60+ years ago. MAYBE even better.

    Maria and Tony stare lovingly at each other behind bleachers at the dance
    Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios

    It goes without saying that Leonard Bernstein's music and Steven Sondheim's lyrics for West Side Story will always be great. That's kinda just inherent in its nature.

    But on top of that, we also have Dudamel's powerful conducting, David Newman arranging the music, and even John Williams, ya know, there were lots of big names involved here to make sure everything sounds perfect (and it does).

    Also, if you're wondering, Sondheim was involved with the filmmaking process and actually gave his "stamp of approval" when he was able to screen the completed film (earlier this year) before he died.

    14. And finally, with a 97% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it's pretty clear where the critics have landed on Spielberg's adaptation.

    The Jets and the Sharks face off at the dance
    Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios

    Given, critics don't always get things right, but in this case I really think they have. West Side Story truly is a big screen, event-type movie and if you're able to see it in a theater 10/10 would reccommend.

    West Side Story hits theaters on Dec. 10, 2021! And if you need anymore convincing, check out the trailer here:

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