A Review of West Side Story (2021)

A Review of West Side Story (2021)

Emily Nolasco, Writer

The 1961 film West Side Story was a classic of its time and is still to this day an amazing film. The story makes a modern twist to Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. However, instead of being about rival families, it tells the story of rival gangs. The movie is praised for its grand choreographies and the almost acrobatic movements of the actors/dancers. To further prove the impact it made in the film industry, to this day it holds the honor of having the most academy award wins for any musical film. It also helped the world see the talent of actress Rita Moreno as she won an Oscar for her role in it as “Anita” being the first female of Latin descent to do so.

Although the movie is undoubtedly an iconic film, that does not mean it is without flaws. For starters, the lack of Latino representation in a film that is making a statement of the hardship Latin American immigrants face in the United States is a major issue. Mostly shown in Natalie Wood who was Caucasian playing the role of “Maria” who is supposed to be Latina. Then, instead of the directors casting actual Hispanic actors to play the role of the Sharks, they decided to cast white actors and use dark makeup to make the actors seem more Puerto Rican. It’s just ironic to me how a movie that was supposed to be making a commentary on the negative impact of racism and the struggles immigrants faced, had so much racism rooted inside the making of the film

When I heard that there was a remake of this musical being made, I was very excited to see a version of this musical film be made with more consideration to Puerto Rican culture and fix the racial issues the original film had. Because I still do think West Side Story is an amazing musical, I just don’t think the 1961 film reaches the full impact I believe the story could have. This new 2021 adaptation is being held to high expectations since it is remaking one of the most iconic musicals of all time. So, does this version of West Side Story meet those expectations? Does it exceed the original film in regards to the depth and interpretation of the story?

Off the bat, Spielberg’s version of the iconic musical gives a whole different vibe than the 1961 film. From the beginning, it had a more raw, gritty, and realistic feeling to it. Starting with the characters, they were radiating with liveliness and felt a lot more authentic in my opinion. The characters were also given more of a backstory. For example, Tony and his history with being in the Jets were a lot better explained and held a lot of importance throughout the film. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but note how much life and wittiness Rachel Zegler brought to her character, Maria. As for Ansel Elgort as Tony, I won’t lie, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never seen his acting before but was pleasantly surprised, I think he played a very charming Tony.

Regarding the musical aspect, I felt like my heart was beaming with joy throughout every song. West Side Story wouldn’t be West Side Story without its amazing choreographies, and this movie didn’t disappoint. I didn’t know if Spielberg would be able to maintain true to the musical aspects of West Side Story, but he ended up exceeding my expectations. I think the musical numbers were amazing, as I enjoyed seeing how much they took advantage of the setting, Manhattan. Making the movie and songs feel more atmospheric.

However, I wasn’t too sure how to feel about the romance between Maria and Tony. Maybe it’s because I’m not too much of a fan of love at first sight. Sometimes I would think, “Oh yeah they’re cute.” but then other times their relationship would come off as kind of awkward to me. I felt this most in their first encounter scene, I remember shaking my head and laughing to myself in the theatre, because of how uncomfortable I felt during that scene. Maybe that was the goal, I don’t know. But I will say this movie’s Tony and Maria redeemed themselves with the balcony scene, one of my favorite moments from the movie.

Now to the topic, I feel the most passionate about, the Latino representation in this movie. That is what drove me to review this movie in the first place because as a daughter of Hispanic immigrants I was unsettled by the lack of representation in the 1961 film. Which is something this newer version undoubtedly did better.

I took my mother to watch this movie, and both she and I were appreciative of how authentic the Latino characters felt. The Sharks would be speaking full sentences in Spanish while using Puerto Rican slang multiple times throughout the film instead of being whitewashed by just saying a phrase or two like “Chico” or “Hola”. Finally seeing Hispanic actors in these roles was truly refreshing. It felt more realistic, and it made watching the movie more enjoyable to watch for both me and my mother, as I know she felt represented. I could tell that while watching the movie she saw her struggles as a person coming into a new country reflected by these characters.

Overall, Spielberg’s West Side Story was a more raw and realistic interpretation of the story. I would personally say I prefer this version more as it felt more intense and better emphasized the message. It felt less about the romance and more about the destruction and division that is caused by hate and racism. This movie made us feel for Tony and Maria’s tragic ending as well as making us reflect on how there is still a lot of prejudice and division affecting our society today; and that the message of West Side Story is still relevant to this day.