The argument against remaking films, especially well respected ones, is that there is just no need. If you want to present them to a new audience, just show the original movie to a new audience. West Side Story is considered a classic and yet there is a new version coming out at Christmas, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg who is unquestionably a man who respects classic cinema.
To be fair Spielberg also looked at remaking James Stewart’s Harvey, which would most certainly be sacrilege in my book, and took the conventions of 1940’s action adventure movies and fed them into Raiders of the Lost Ark, so he’s not afraid to reinvent cinematic history for the modern age. If he sees it stands to be improved, he is prepared to do that. (Clearly he realised Harvey couldn’t be improved which is why he dropped it.)
In the case of West Side Story, it’s not that it needs improving per se but it is very very dated.
Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation of Laurents, Sondheim and Bernstein’s successful stage musical of four years previous is very much of its time with a six minute overture accompanied by no visuals at the start and a whole series of dance fighting that looks more than a little silly today. Let’s be honest, these street gangs with their humming, whistling and clicking fingers are about as intimidating as the Smurfs. It is essentially just ballet of course but it doesn’t make the street rumbles feel very authentic when removed from the stage and placed in real New York locations. I mean the rival Jets and Sharks are literally leap frogging one another which you suspect would be a good way to get a switchblade to the nuts in real life.
What is interesting is that this wasn’t as contemporary as it could have been even then. Take the dance party scene that takes place about twenty minutes in and compare it to the similar depiction of gangs at play in a musical in Grease which is a lot looser and actually looks like the kids are having fun. West Side Story feels more akin to 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, which granted it was closer to in years but things were already changing with the Elvis film Blue Hawaii, shortly followed by Cliff in Summer Holiday. Even then West Side Story was the last vestiges of a genre now ready to match the Rock and Roll style of the decade it had entered.
The thing with West Side Story though is that there are some aspects that are as timely now as ever. The racist cop who clearly favours the American kids and tells the Puerto Ricans they are not welcome, taunting them with ‘I got a badge, whatta you got?’ does not feel as antiquated as it should. Similarly the lyrics to the song America are still spot on; ‘life is alright in America if you are all white in America’. One thing that would be different now is that they wouldn’t, and I’m sure won’t, have immigrant characters singing about not having the job opportunities they deserve when mostly being played by white actors because those of the correct ethnicity did not have the job opportunities they deserve.
The Jets dressed in their yellow jackets look like they’ve just stepped off the set of Hi-Di-Hi! too, and there’s a reference for you that is as out of date as the thing it is mocking.
Yet for all of this, West Side Story still hits some notes perfectly. For all of its artifice when Tony and Maria are together, declaring their love in the songs Tonight and One Hand, One Heart, this is where it convinces and touches the ageless authenticity of its Shakespeare source material.
So yes, there is something there but still West Side Story does merit a remake. I’m hoping that it keeps the power of what it gets right and increases the power of what it doesn’t. There’s something in this story that should be retold.