Film Review of West Side Story Remake

Movie poster of Steven Spielberg’s 2021 West Side Story remake. Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort depict Tony and Maria. Photo by Emilia Valencia.

West Side Story (2021) is a long overdue remake in my eyes. While the original 1961 West Side Story was critically acclaimed and beloved by many, it has an unfortunate history of misrepresenting and stereotyping Latinx people as well casting white actors in brown face to portray Puerto Rican characters. The 2021 Steven Spielberg adaptation included a heavily Latinx cast of talented actors, singers, and dancers, giving West Side Story the representation it deserves. Carter McHargue (12) said, “Personally for me, growing up I always saw white characters on the screen, and I feel like I’ve been so numb to it. A movie like this can really inspire tons of kids to be more expressive with themselves.” In addition to including many more people of Hispanic descent, this movie included a lot more spoken Spanish, including a new song sung by the Sharks, “La Boriqueña.” “I see it as a great change. I think the original movie was just made for a white audience, and I think this version is made for what America really is, it is not just English that is being spoken,” said McHargue.  

If you are unfamiliar, West Side Story is a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which rival gangs in 1950s New York City are torn apart over territory and a pair of star crossed lovers. The Jets are the white American gang in this particular neighborhood in New York City; their leader, Riff (Mike Faist) leads the Jets as they fight for “their territory.” The Sharks are a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants that are consistently the rival of the Jets. Maria (Rachel Zegler), a young Puerto Rican woman, lives with her overprotective older brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), who is the leader of the Sharks, and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose). On a seemingly average evening Maria attends a social dance where she meets Tony (Ansel Elgort), a member of the Jets. This puts Bernardo at odds with Riff and Tony, even more than they were before. The Jets propose a rumble. Later that evening, Tony and Maria rendezvous on her fire escape, where they promise to meet again the following day. The story of their romance unfolds while tensions between gangs rise.

Another change that was made for the new movie that I see as necessary is the addition of more depth and backstory to the female characters. Maria and Anita have to work as maids and as seamstresses to make ends meet. Anita stands up for herself against Bernardo when he expresses his desire to have a large family and move back to Puerto Rico with her as a housewife. Much to my surprise, Riff’s girlfriend Graziella (Paloma Garcia-Lee) was given many more lines than she was in the 1961 film. I felt like in the new adaptation she was more of a real character than a prop for Riff to use. 

Something else I thought was interesting in this film was that it felt a lot more like the original Shakespeare source material. There is a new scene where Tony and Maria exchange vows in front of a stained glass window, referencing Romeo and Juliet getting married in secret. In the scene where Tony and Maria meet for the first time, Tony talks about “kissing by the book” which is directly taken from the first meeting in Romeo and Juliet.

There was intense attention given to detail in the sets and costuming. A particular aspect I really enjoyed was the color coordination and how that helped the telling of the story. The Sharks are always dressed in warm tones, browns, oranges, and yellows, while the Jets are always in shades of blue. In the beginning of the story Maria adheres to the color coordination, but as her romance with Tony progresses more blue is incorporated into her wardrobe. 

As far as the performance of the actors goes, I thought everyone—leads, supporting characters, and extras alike—did a wonderful job. Rachel Zegler was phenomenal. Her singing skills were incredible and as she was a teenager when the movie was filmed, was very believable as 18 year old Maria. Putting aside my personal opinions about Ansel Elgort, I thought he did a really great job as Tony. His singing ability exceeded my expectations, and he had a captivating portrayal of teen angst and lovesickness. Ariana DeBose, who before now has mainly performed on Broadway, was an excellent Anita. In my opinion, she absolutely stole the show with her song “America.” Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original movie, returned as a new character, Valentina. Valentina is the owner of the local drug store where the gangs hang out; this character was a man named Doc in the original film. The addition of this character really added a lot to the movie by being an ally to the Puerto Ricans and the women in the show; it added a dynamic that was missing from the original film. Additionally, I enjoyed seeing Moreno sing “Somewhere,” which was sung by Tony and Maria in the original movie. 

I could not recommend this film more. While it does nothing to hide that it is a musical, it’s very digestible even if you are not typically a fan of the genre. No matter how familiar you are with the original Shakespeare or how many times you have seen the original 1961 movie, you will view this adaptation as something completely different and find yourself hoping for a different fate for Tony and Maria, even though you know what the end of the story brings.

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