The new rendition of “West Side Story” illustrates that we can love each other despite our differences

The new rendition of West Side Story illustrates that we can love each other despite our differences

Steven Speilberg’s new musical film, “West Side Story,” brings a timeless story to a young generation. This beloved American classic, first written in the 1960s, tells the beautiful story of two young people falling in love amidst a background of prejudice and hate in a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This new remake reveals the shocking relevancy the film holds even today. 

The story begins by following the Jets, a gang made up of Italian and Irish descendants, through the streets of New York City. They begin a squabble with their rival gang, the Sharks, who are of Puerto Rican descent. The gangs agree to hold a dance in neutral territory at the local gym that night. At the dance that evening, the gangs plan when the next fight or “rumble” will take place. 

The setting in this movie really drew me in as New York City is such a vibrant place, home to many immigrants with varying cultural traditions. The film showed how closely neighbors were packed into the city and how this contributed to close friendships between tenants. 

I felt that the story focused on the racial tension between the two groups well, and showed what motivated them to fight for control of the city. I appreciated that the film showed both group’s perspectives equally. The Sharks were so happy for the chance to have a new start in America, a land rich with opportunity. The Jets, however, were threatened by their presence and felt that they would take away land that had belonged to their own families for generations. The altercations between the gangs show how fear can be controlling. Although they are wrong in choosing violence, the story illustrates the devoted loyalty within each gang, almost as if they are each other’s family. Even though the Sharks and the Jets come from different places and different races, they are actually very similar. Both are motivated by fear, hunger for revenge, and wanting to protect people they love. 

After the opening reveals this tension, Riff, the leader of the Jets, begs his best friend Tony to come to the dance with them. Tony was once a member of the Jets, but has now served time in jail and turned his life around. Tony ends up giving in to Riff’s request, seeing no danger in attending a dance. On the other side of the city, Maria is preparing to attend the dance with her family. Having just moved to America from Puerto Rico, she is anxious to fit in and begin her new life in New York living with her brother, Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, and his girlfriend, Anita. 

Even at a social event, the Sharks and Jets can not resist competing against each other in a dance. The bright colors of the scene and fast paced music are dazzling. Amidst this energy, Maria and Tony make eye contact and immediately fall in love. Since they are from different gangs, they are forbidden to be together but nonetheless they meet in secret and promise to run away together. 

Ultimately their happy ending is stopped by the gang violence. After members of each community die, Tony and Maria are separated by death though their love lives on. This distressing ending was particularly sad because these two main characters were so lovable. When Maria first arrives in America she is optimistic, but shows a  hard working spirit and is eager to work. Though Tony was once involved in violence, he made peace with his past and moved on. Since both grow to abhor the activities of the gangs and in my opinion are the most morally sound people in the movie, it is impossible not to want them to be happy together.

I thought the music in this film was beautiful. The lyrics are very romantic, and were enhanced by the gorgeous singing. I particularly appreciated the use of the cello throughout the instrumentation. The cello has a range similar to the human voice, and evokes human feelings such as love, grief, and joy. 

The film’s release was timed right around the original’s 50th anniversary. Even though many people say the first “West Side Story” is a masterpiece, I would argue that this remake is better. I thought the signing was better and the plot more believable in this version. Actors Angel Elgort and Rachel Zegler brought these characters to life in unique ways which I enjoyed. In addition, the new retelling was not nearly as cheesy as the first.  

Besides being a piece of art, “West Side Story” raises some very thought provoking questions. It led me to reflect on how divided we as people can be, and that unity and respect of each other’s opinions is the only way we can be at peace. Though our country may not be divided in terms of gang violence, it is in other ways. Social media and politics drive relationships apart simply because people think differently. In the end, division cripples communities and creates barriers. Rather than continuing with this type of behavior towards one another, we should move forward with respect and empathy. If we could just look a little closer, we would see that we are not so different after all.