Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ is getting better reviews than the Oscar-winning original
In a day and age where remakes, reboots, and reimaginings are oversaturating movie theaters with unoriginal nostalgia cash-grabs, it’s refreshing to hear that Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story is apparently justifying its own reason to exist, based on the critical reception thus far.
Though the 1961 original film is considered a classic and garnered a staggering 10 Academy Awards⏤a record for a musical that remains unbroken to this day⏤the film is not without its flaws. With the times we’re living in being as uncertain as they are, it’s only natural that now is the perfect moment for a second take on a story heavily centered around overcoming racial divisions, among other more-relevant-than-ever topics.
The original film featured Puerto Rican characters in one of the film’s gangs⏤the Sharks⏤portrayed by white actors like Natalie Wood and George Chakiris. The remake’s all-Latinx casting of the Sharks is just one of the many changes that critics are hailing. Another prescient choice in the remake that’s being praised is the decision to feature scenes with Spanish dialogue and no subtitles.
The cinematic debut of Rachel Zegler⏤who is Latina⏤in the role of María is also being heralded as a star-making performance. Zegler was chosen from a pool of thousands of auditionees and was only a senior in high school when she was cast. Spielberg famously worked around her high school musical schedule, altering West Side Story rehearsals so Zegler could play Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical.
Shockingly, Spielberg’s take on West Side Story is now being hailed as even better than the original film. The 2021 remake currently boasts a critic score of 96% on review-aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes from 136 reviews as of press time. That gives it an even higher score than the 1961 version’s still-impressive 93%.
Apart from the aggregate rankings, many critics are specifically saying that Speilberg’s reimagining is unequivocally better than the Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise-directed original, including outlets like Star Tribune, Boston Globe, and Houston Chronicle. Even the late Steven Sondheim, who wrote the original Broadway musical’s lyrics and saw the new film just before he passed away on Nov. 26 at the age of 91, said that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner “really, really nailed it.”
It’s understandable that musical theatre aficionados might be nervous about fresh adaptations of their favorite shows, but if these positive accolades are any indication, then they have nothing to worry about⏤and in fact, much to look forward to⏤with this timely take on one of the most beloved musicals of all time.
Spielberg’s West Side Story arrives in theaters Friday, Dec. 10.