The vast world of entertainment – specifically the United States – isn’t without a checkered past. Whether it comes from the business side or the side of representation, becoming completely ticky-tacky will dissuade you from films of particular genres like Westerns. It then lands on you to try and view it through two lenses: the one where you understand the underlying history and break apart the delivery, and the other where you let yourself walk in blind and take it at face value. West Side Story (2021) is no stranger to that. The musical is rooted in this bewildering thought of the faux-American dream for a Puerto Rican in New York City and America. Its nuances are rooted in the limited knowledge the writers-creators had – Hollywood didn’t help with an adaptation that gave us copious amounts of brownface and stereotypical accents a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961). Steven Spielberg’s rendition improves and offers an earnest adaptation that gives us a larger-than-life story that is technically triumphant, despite having its shortcomings. Unfortunately, it isn’t without its external issues.
Let’s break some bread and get the external issues out the way. West Side Story is a tale about Puerto Ricans being run out of their hood by racist youths and a systemically racist system that sheds any sense of hope from your mind, but they mask it under what is a retelling of Romeo & Juliet. It takes you in various directions; it becomes muddled with themes that scratch a thin surface. It often threads back to its love story that steers in a nonsensical direction. Besides that, the issues that weigh over the film stem from the back end. Most of the lead actors on the Latin side range in nationality from Colombian to Cuban and Dominican; it tiptoes the safe line of inclusion as long as everything else goes right. Understandably, one can get sick from the idea that they view us as all the same, but sometimes you swallow the pill for the hope it opens doors for Latin stories to get financed and made, even though one wishes Tony Kushner brought in a Latin voice to touch it up.
Unfortunately it doesn’t end there, and the complexities ride on leaving an opinion at the door, or else the love story West Side Story tells may offer complete drawbacks. There are allegations against Ansel Elgort for grooming someone underage – including sexual assault – and Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, looks younger than her purported age of 18 at shooting. The allegations came after the film was in the editing phase. If you take this in with you, you can’t marvel at what Steven Spielberg accomplishes and the performances at hand. West Side Story has its issues, there is no denying it. I’m not here to tell you this film is vile garbage because of the varying X factors that may or may not have been in their control, and it gives the film a slight disservice when you can’t accept the various aspects that are fantastic.
From the moment the title card dissipates, Steven Spielberg reminds you that making a musical has been a dream of his, and he takes a C-tier story and gives us a film where his devotion is at 250%, if not more. As it pans across the rubble within the blocks of the West Side, the lighting, the steady camera movement, and focus on the surroundings give you a sense that it will be special for those who carry a fondness for the musical. For people who weren’t privy, or rather fans, it loosely brings quality to enjoy, especially from the performances and stunning cinematography and choreography.
West Side Story isn’t 100% the same as past iterations – some changes improve the story, and some hurt the hidden bottom line (representation). Tony Kushner delivers a script that takes a few bold liberties with the characters. It transfixes you as it cures the hollowness of certain characters, adding vanity and allowing us to immerse within the story, even if it’s not always there. Some positive changes come from Tony’s backstory and switching who runs Doc’s corner store/bodega. Tony has layers, allowing for motives to have more implications than past counterparts. The film makes you care for the character until the story falls down a long set of spiral stairs in the final thirty minutes. For Doc, they give the part to Rita Moreno, whose presence and performance are subtle and impactful as she guides Tony.
However, one change that didn’t work – though understandable to an extent – comes from the place of work for the characters: it changes from garment industry workers to cleaners. It takes away from historical identity and reverts to a stereotype for Latin actors. In the context of the film, Steven Spielberg aims to shape each musical performance to include: extravagant shots, coloring, and imagery, which gives the songs a boost. It doesn’t land with the performance of “I Feel Pretty,” like it does with “Something’s Coming.” Unlike the latter, the former doesn’t have the same spark as the performances of “Maria” and “America.” “Something’s Coming” only suffers from having key pitches that Ansel Elgort can’t hit properly, and his falsetto-baritone-like hybrid makes it noticeable. Rachel Zegler, on the other hand, hits her notes beautifully and marvelously carries the duets – as well as delivering a memorable performance on the balcony.
Ansel Elgort isn’t quite as remarkable or captivating as the other actors and sometimes feels like a stick in the mud. He doesn’t deter the story, but sometimes you’re left waiting for it to pick up steam so we can get to another performance. It isn’t the same for Rachel Zegler, who constantly shines, especially when the delivery is in Spanish – this is the case for the whole Latino cast. So whenever Spanish is spoken, Spielberg’s bold choice to 86 the subtitles gave the language vanity and define them for who they are. It remedies the accents which never come across as egregious.
But ultimately, West Side Story isn’t whole without Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist, who play Anita and Riff, respectively, and the few Shark and Jet members who deliver capable performances in their respective scenes and musical numbers. There were moments I was left yearning for the film to rewind and allow me to revisit some of the performances – for DeBose, it is “America.” The improvements give her room to explore and dance, giving us a sense of the brutally honest and racist reality about the United States at the time. And for Faist, it is the performance of “Cool” with Ansel Elgort, who holds his own against the Broadway veteran. The careful attention to shooting the dance movements adds agency toward each action, making the performances more captivating. Apart from the performances during the musical numbers, DeBose and Faist hit their dramatic beats perfectly – like where Riff confronts Tony to join the rumble, and DeBose confronts Maria in the final act.
It’s perplexing. I went in with an open mind, understanding what I’ve mentioned prior, and left it at the door because a lot of people put in the work and took the care to deliver a better adaptation than the 1961 film. I left with performances to love, musical numbers to remember, and an earnest adaptation that fixes a few problems – though we still have a long way to go. West Side Story is a roller coaster of good and bad, whether it comes from someone’s singing, the story beats, or the teetering accents. Fortunately, it wasn’t the rare boring roller coaster like the Superman ride at Six Flags Amusement Park.