Wow, West Side Story (2021)!


Since I recently reviewed the original, I had to watch the new West Side Story (2021) when it became available on HBO Max. There are, by now, countless reviews available, so I’ll focus as per our charter, on the costumes, but I have to say that, even though I usually hate remakes, this one was needed and not only does justice to the source material, I find it improves on it and fixes some of the problems with the original. This West Side Story feels more historically accurate, more grounded in the socio-economic background of New York City and the gangs and racial issues that this Romeo and Juliet tale is grafted onto. Yet it’s still a kick-ass musical with gorgeous dance numbers!

The historical accuracy is also seen in the 1950s costumes designed by Paul Tazewell. Director Steven Spielberg specifically sets this film in 1957, when the original Broadway show was set, and Tazwell wanted to avoid the the 1960s influence that crept into the first movie adaption. Tazewell explained in an Awards Radar interview:

“As a designer, when you’re thinking about designing clothes that are plausible and make sense and are as accurate as possible, you’re dipping into years before that potentially just to make sense of who these people are and their economic condition. So I was really focused on the early to mid ’50s in my designing.”

West Side Story (2021)

Realistic, colorful, delightful street scenes.

He took period sources and expanded on them to create a heightened world that works beautifully for this musical. In Harpers Bazaar, Tazewell said:

“My research was all about looking at images and photography, and specifically the photographs of Bruce Davidson — mostly black-and-white photographs of New York gangs that he embedded himself with in the 1950s. I had an opportunity to see what the clothes were, and really study what those pieces were and what was their fit, and what were they drawn to stylistically. I also looked at period catalogues, like Sears or Spiegel’s or Montgomery Ward.”

Tazewell made a point of showing how the Puerto Rican characters of the era dress distinctly from the white characters. Continuing in Harpers Bazaar, he said:

“I wanted to be respectful of the migrating Latinx community and how they were working to fit in at that time. They’re styled more formally because it’s aspirational. They’re dressing to attain their own self-respect and the respect of other people. I know that’s true for the Black American community as well — the importance of shined shoes and pressed shirts and leaving the house fully dressed.”

West Side Story (2021)

Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) is held up as the model immigrant with a good job & prospects, even though he has a terrible ending.

As Tazewell continued in Harpers Bazaar:

“I wanted for the Sharks to be reflective of men that were holding jobs — though they definitely weren’t wealthy. They were dressing in the best that they had. They wore tailored pants and shoes that were broken in, but more of a dress type, as opposed to a sneaker. I was really trying to push them apart so that it was reflective of the community that they were coming from. Alongside that was the color palette — I kept the Sharks in a warmer color palette, which felt reminiscent of where they had come from and how they were re-creating themselves in New York.”

West Side Story (2021)

Leader of the Jets, Riff (Mike Faist) with Graziella (Paloma Garcia-Lee), vs. leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez), Anita (Ariana DeBose) at the dance.

West Side Story (2021)

In the gym’s mens room, they arrange for a rumble the next night. Bernardo looks much more formally dressed than Riff.

This is most noticeable during the dance at the high school gym. The Sharks men are mostly wearing suits or jackets with ties, while the Jets men are wearing open-collar shirts. The Puerto Rican are more dressed up for the same event. Tazewell said in Harpers Bazaar:

“That’s in contrast to the look of the Jets, who were coming from broken homes and really struggling. There’s also a certain casualness and comfort in being an American and being in New York City — the Jets are the only gang that I put in blue denim, because it’s an icon of America. I felt that that was very important to connect to them.”

Certain costume themes did carry through from the 1961 movie, however. In an interview with Below the Line, Tazewell noted:

“There were only two instances where [Spielberg] specifically requested certain designs. One was the white dress that Maria wears at the dance at the gym — he wanted that as a nod to the original. Smartly so, [as] it reflects her innocence at the beginning. It was also the cultural connection to the Church and her Catholic upbringing. The second was that Bernardo be in a red shirt for the prologue, the first time we see him. Part of that, design-wise, was to set the tone for how I was going to imagine these two gangs.”

West Side Story (2021)

Rachel Zegler as Maria.

That white dress was made of a custom-embroidered fabric, which Tazewell described in Vanity Fair:

“There weren’t a lot of choices out there that would fill the bill for all of it. And I wanted a certain amount of sheerness, so that you could see the petticoat through it because I knew that it was going to be backlit. So, it creates this ghostly figure—she kind of glows when she’s lit from behind.”

West Side Story (2021)

Costume sketch & fabrics from Paul Tazewell’s Instagram, where he has TONS of info about the West Side Story costumes!

There’s a progression in Maria’s costumes, that Tazewell describes in Harpers Bazaar:

“When we see Maria go on her date with Tony, the second outfit looks like a blouse she could have brought over from Puerto Rico. It’s reflective of a traditional peasant blouse and has hand stitching that’s lovingly done, similar to something that her mother or grandmother might’ve made in Puerto Rico. But then, pairing that with a slim skirt makes it seem as if she’s trying to appear more mature and moving away from the white dress that is keeping her in the box. And then, when she adds a little red cardigan, she comes off as a very intelligent Latin woman who has her own mind — and is not afraid of expressing it.”

West Side Story (2021)

Her style is maturing. But look at Tony (Ansel Elgort) wearing sneakers, which the Puerto Rican men wouldn’t do.

West Side Story (2021)

Paul Tazewell’s design for the blouse.

West Side Story (2021)

A glimpse of the blouse in the scene.

Another standout character is Anita (Ariana DeBose) with her brilliant yellow dress during the “America” song and dance number. In the 1961 movie, this number came after the high-school dance and took place on a rooftop; for this movie, it’s an exuberant piece that takes over the streets of the city. Anita is still the focus, which that dress helps magnify. Tazewell said:

“I really wanted Anita to be like the sun — to be the center of that community and hold that kind of energy and exuberance that was then reflective of the rest of the neighborhood.”

West Side Story (2021)

In Below the Line, Tazewell elaborated on why he used this yellow and all the other bright colors on the dancers in this number:

“The idea was to evoke the happiness of moving to America, of recreating your life, the aspiration of that. This is all vs. the cooler, more controlled, or even depressive quality in the Jets, the broken homes they were coming from, and what was influencing how they viewed this new community of a different race coming into their territory.”

West Side Story (2021)

I dare you not to smile during this scene!

West Side Story (2021)

Great outfits in the background too.

The costumes are the cherry on top of this delicious sundae of a movie musical. There are excellent performances by all the singers and dancers, including a significant part for Rita Moreno — the original Anita from 1961 takes over the “Doc” type role, and yes, it works. There’s a little reordering of some songs, which I found made more sense to the story, but overall, it’s pretty faithful to the original book. With more historical context, and that’s a good thing.



Have you seen the new West Side Story? How do you think it compares to the 1961 version?

14 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    Will probably get to it eventually. It was my era; (Ft Lauderdale High, class of ’58) What I remember mostly was girls in sundresses with spaghetti straps, or tight-fitting skirts (called Sloppy Joes) tighter sweaters, ballet flats, short shorts, motorcycle boots and saddle oxfords. I mostly wore black shirts and black jeans.

  2. Gray

    The costumes were great! But the film isn’t really an improvement. Maria and especially Anita were fantastic! I hated and didn’t care about Tony… wasn’t impressed with his singing. And it looked to me like the Sharks could beat the shit out of the Jets with ease. I liked the characters speaking Spanish. But Rita Mareno’s character didn’t seem believable to me. I don’t think either gang in this gritty realistic production would accept her.
    But mainly I miss Jerome Robins. His choreography was integral, really infused into the action. The new choreography (which ain’t bad) and indeed the songs, look more inserted into a gritty straight play than part of a whole. My favorite number from the 60s film is “Cool”, in the garage with the Jets and their girls. Spielberg turns it into a 2nd Ammendment number. I hated that!
    OK, I’ll stop… but you see… the film has great stuff and not so great stuff all mixed together, just like the 60s version (although different stuff). It’s certainly entertaining and worth seeing, but not necessarily an improvement.
    Again… the costumes were great!

    • Terry

      “The new choreography (which ain’t bad) and indeed the songs, look more inserted into a gritty straight play than part of a whole.” This is my main criticism of the movie, and I agree with you about Valentina and Tony (I think that character was miscast). But I was happy to see a backstory (even if slight) for Riff, Chino, and Tony, and placing the movie directly into the context of urban renewal gave it an urgency the original didn’t have. In the original play, Cool was sung in the drug store before the rumble was set up. While Cool in the first movie is a classic, I though it worked here better than the timing in the play. I love the costumes even more knowing Tazewell’s reasoning.

    • Eileen

      I agree with you on pretty much everything. While I appreciated some improvements, I thought as a whole it felt flat. As a musical, it really didn’t cohere together. And the desecrationof “Cool,” which is one of my top 5 musical movie numbers, ruined so much of the movie for me. I felt pretty much all the Jets were bland and miscast. The Tony prison-redemption backstory was so unbelievable to be laughable, and they kept bringing it up! So a few improvements but not a better overall movie.

      • Emily

        Agree with all of the above, plus as a hearing-impaired person I was not pleased that the Spanish was not subtitled in the captioning!

      • Lynn Brooks

        Omg, the prison story was so unbelievable and unnecessary.

  3. M.E. Lawrence

    I liked this update better, if only because the street dancing was marvelous, this Maria can act, and Rita Moreno can, too. The costuming brought it all together.

  4. Dulce

    I simply ADORED the costumes so much from this film. It added a lot of dimension to me and helped me identify a lot about the characters even from the very beginning. My mother’s family immigrated from Colombia to Queens in the 1960s and seeing how the Sharks/Puerto Rican community where more dressy was so realistic to me. Some of Bernardo’s outfits reminded me of what my Abuelo would wear back in the day too. Even the difference of having the Jets belt their jeans at their natural waistline instead of higher up like the Sharks was chef’s kiss.

  5. Al Don

    I’ll admit I’m not a fan of musicals at all. I’m just the wrong audience for it haha. Telling people my few favorite musicals always raises eyebrows. I’m not a fan of the 1961 film and this version was mostly just alright to me.

    That said, I stuck with it for Ariana DeBose. I’m so glad a lot of the film’s buzz revolved around her and couldn’t be happier for her success. She’s brilliant all around. You made the right call, Academy.

  6. SarahV

    During the “America” dance number when Anita and her girls are all dancing and using their full crinoline-lined skirts for effect you can hear them snap/fwoosh – like how you hear fresh sheets when you ‘throw” them out – such a great effect!

  7. Karen K.

    I loved it and went to see it on a big screen with not much expectation. It’s not my favorite musical (probably since I was in a mediocre high school production) and I’m not a huge fan of the original movie. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, especially the choreography and costuming; also, it’s brilliantly staged and shot. Ansel Elgort was my least favorite of the leads and I’m not convinced by transforming the Doc character, though I understand why they wanted to include Rita Moreno. And I do think that Mike Feist was robbed of an Oscar nomination. Would have also been happy to see David Alvarez nominated for Bernardo also.

  8. Lynn Brooks

    Did not love the remake. The original is one of my favorite movies. I was excited for the remake though because my one issue with the original was the casting of white actors as Puerto Ricans complete with the face paint and fake accents.
    But while the casting was fabulous it fell flat in other ways. I think they did an amazing job with the Sharks (and girlfriends) wardrobe, hair, and makeup. But the Jets all look like they just came out of some hipster barbershop in Williamsburg and decided to host a sorta 50s themed party.
    Also the Sharks big musical number was outstanding, but the Jets 2 big numbers, Cool and Dear officer Krupke were so lackluster. Moving Cool to a different part of the movie took away something and I’m pissed the girls weren’t in it. And Tony was so miscast I wanted to puke.

  9. mplo

    I saw part of the reboot/remake of the film on my computer, which re-enforced the fact that the old, original 1961 film version of West Side Story is the real deal for me.