Right off the bat, I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the original film “West Side Story” (1961) for obvious reasons, but I do admire the choreography. I understand it’s a product of its time, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore its problematic depictions of Latinos. Therefore, I didn’t have many expectations going into this newest version. Learning about this remake didn’t move my needle. It was only after seeing Spielberg’s name attached to the project that my needle slightly moved and not for the reasons you may think.
“West Side Story” (2021) is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ansel Elgort as Tony, Ariana DeBose as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo and Mike Faist as Riff. It follows Maria and Tony’s forbidden love, two people from rival gangs. The Sharks led by Bernardo, Maria’s brother, are Puerto Ricans, and the Jets led by Riff, Tony’s close friend, are a mixture of Irish & Polish. Their long-lasting rivalry embroils in an area where gentrification is the main threat.
There’s no doubt that this is an improvement from the ‘60s movie. There’s no brownface. The offensive lyrics have been modified, and most notably, there’s the casting of Latinos in the Puerto Ricans roles. The aesthetic is desaturated with its color palette (even with some of the costumes) giving it a grittier, grounded feel to this world that feels grander and realistic. The memorable songs are stronger, but the choreography lacks compared to the original film. It’s entertaining but it comes nowhere near the original film’s level of difficulty. The film collectively feels cohesive and entertaining, thanks to the directing, but most importantly, due to its superb acting.
The characters are given depth, substance and development. DeBose’s Anita is easily the best thing in the film. She understood the assignment and submitted extra credit. Her charisma is off the charts. She’s magnetic, beautiful, talented and unbelievably captivating. I can’t imagine the pressure she must have been under since she’s the only cast member to depict a character previously played by an actor who’s involved in the movie. Yet she delivers an awards-worthy performance.
Meanwhile, Elgort is dry, lacks charisma, but does have a decent singing voice. I believed the chemistry between him and Zegler, but both are outshined by the supporting cast. Zegler has an angelic voice and delivers a strong performance in her introductory role. But just like Elgort, she’s swallowed up by DeBose, Faist and Alvarez. This brings me to Faist, who’s another highlight in this film. He has the charisma, on-screen presence and magnetism Elgort completely lacks. His performance is so effective that his character’s outcome is emotionally moving. Lastly, EGOT recipient and returning original cast member Rita Moreno is great as Valentina. She’s the bridge between both films, which surprisingly works, but she brings her accent with her (again).
The accents were kept for some reason, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around this decision. Hearing Natalie Wood portray Maria with a thick accent was offensive, but how much progress is it when a Colombian American does it? This is a conversation that’ll take weeks. Realizing this film isn’t aimed towards Latinos is slightly disappointing, but not surprising. Even with the support of Moreno, as an actor and producer, and the casting of Latinos as members of the Sharks, keeping the accents tells me that this demographic is purposely being depicted in this manner. By continuing to perpetuate this stereotype to audiences will only further cement that Puerto Ricans speak like this. I know a few Puerto Ricans and they don’t speak this way, but I also acknowledge that I’m not Puerto Rican so I can’t speak on their behalf. I strongly urge you all to seek their perspective (I’ll be sharing some of these reviews on my Twitter @rosasreviews). Open yourself to their interpretation and viewpoint of how their culture is being depicted.
Overall, “West Side Story” is visually appealing with some improvement from the original’s problematic themes, but I would undoubtedly prefer to watch Spielberg’s first shark film.