Stephen Spielberg makes an epic retelling of West Side Story that, while technically impressive, isn’t quite the representation it’s being marketed as. This movie is visually stunning, with award-worthy acting performances from Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, and David Alvarez. Their characters, Maria, Anita, and David, carry the movie, but their struggles as Puerto Ricans take a backseat to the white Jets, and they’re reduced to constantly going through hardship. My criticisms are not directed at the talent but primarily the choices by the filmmakers.
West Side Story was originally a 1957 Broadway production by Jerome Robbins and the late lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In 1961 there was a film adaptation that had one Latinx person in the entire cast: Rita Moreno. The rest of the cast was made up of white actors in brown face. Rita Moreno played the role of Anita (played in the latest film by Ariana DeBose) and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, which was the first time a Latinx actress won award.
Having a modern retelling of the original, incredibly problematic, movie would be the perfect opportunity for a nuanced film on the unique experience of the Puerto Rican community, but in the end, that perspective is once again marginalized.
I would also like to preface this review by clarifying that this film was my first time experiencing West Side Story. Also I do not intend to speak for the Puerto Rican community or experience, since I am Mexican American. This is just my perspective on the film and I highly encourage you to look at reviews by Puerto Rican film critics like this one by Kristen Maldonado and Josie Marie Meléndez and this one by Andrea González-Ramírez.
20th Century Studios’ West Side Story is in theaters now.
It is important right off the bat to acknowledge that this film does right a past sin of the original film by having Latinx talent as Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the rest of the Sharks. In the original film, Anita was the only character played by a Latinx actor. In this film, Anita is played by Ariana DeBose, who is Afro-Puerto Rican, which is great representation. Her performance is stellar, and her singing and dancing certainly steal the show. Ariana delivers a new Anita for a new generation and she does a fantastic job. The song “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love” by Ariana and Rachel is an emotional moment shared by the two, their acting enhanced the emotion of the song and the weight of the moment in the film. Easily the best performance in the movie!
David Alvarez is another standout with his performance as Bernardo, Maria’s brother and founder of the Sharks. He has a very large presence in any scene he’s in, especially his scenes with Ariana, which were electric. I loved every scene they shared and they are very powerful together. There is a scene at the gym when Anita tells the band to start playing and then the Puerto Ricans dance and it’s pure Latinx joy, which we got about twice in the entire movie. Those moments were very fun and I wish there were more. The song “America” is my favorite in the movie for that reason, and I appreciate that they changed some previously inauthentic lyrics for this one.
Watching this movie, it’s obvious Steven Spielberg has a reverence for the musical, and he did a very good job on the film side. It feels larger than life with the way it’s shot due to the scale and the elaborate camerawork. The score as well is beautiful, and it feels like a play that was recorded with how interactive the music is.
Tony (Ansel Elgort) and María’s chemistry is overshadowed by Anita and Bernardo in my opinion. In the scenes when they are apart, you really believe that María and Tony are head over heels for the other. But when they are together, I felt like Zegler is carrying the chemistry. I didn’t really buy into how hopelessly in love they fall with each other after one minute of dancing, but that likely can be attributed to the original play.
I believe the film only includes the original songs from the play, but I wish Zegler was given more opportunities to sing, perhaps a solo. Elgort gets two solos, but one of them could have easily been reworked for Zegler, who has one of the best voices in the entire cast. Unfortunately, Elgort’s singing isn’t as strong. You can see his jaw moving so much every time because he’s trying to do the vibrato, which is a bit distracting. Vibrato isn’t supposed to come from the jaw, but the vocal cords. Similarly, I wish we could have spent more time with Bernardo and Anita, every time they are on the screen, they just command so much attention, and they are very talented singers.
The musical numbers in this film were so are beautiful, feeling larger than life, but the dancing in the numbers is underutilized. The dance choreography in the dance at the gym (and in general) is so good, but we get too much of the Jets dancing and not enough of the Puerto Ricans dancing.
I didn’t enjoy how, several times during the movie, the Jets bring up the idea of “go back to where you came from,” lumping in all Latinx people as immigrants; Puerto Ricans are actually U.S. citizens. From the beginning of the film, it feels more about the white perspective, since in the first song we see the Jets doing their thing and antagonizing of the Puerto Rican community. On top of that, there are so much discrimination, microaggressions and the use of old racial slurs, which overall felt very aggressive, and I was uncomfortable the whole time. I actually hadn’t heard any one of those racial slurs in my life prior to the film. It was a weird experience.
While these things are part of the story, I don’t think it needed to be that much for this retelling. You can definitely tell the story without it being that over the top. In this film, it’s more about things happening to the Sharks. The Jets are antagonizing them the entire time, yet there are no repercussions for the Jets’ actions in the entire movie. There’s also a scene where Elgort’s Tony is telling María that she has it easier for her community because she comes from a family; I wasn’t a fan of that. It feels like the film is coming from a white point of view and the Puerto Rican experience is secondary, usually told and barely shown. A good example of this is the “Gee, Officer Krupke” song, where the audience is being told by the Jets that they’re only like this because of their upbringing, they’re misunderstood and have “untapped good.”
There’s also the issue of the accents. There is nothing wrong with any Latinx person having an accent, but it is distracting how thick they are for all of the characters. For example, they even sing with a thick accent so their vocal abilities are not fully showcased. It can be distracting, but the performers did great despite the hurdle.
The attempted sexual assault scene is another instance of too much. Anita is harassed by the Jets and the scene is prolonged and difficult to watch and there are no consequences for their actions.
Again, the Latinx actors in this film are amazing, and from a technical perspective, it is a good film. However, the writing and lens of the film doesn’t do the Puerto Rican community justice. I look forward to seeing more of these actors in their future projects.
RATING – 2/5 Pocky
Jorgie is a pop culture fan and contributor at POCculture.com. He loves learning about visual effects, production, film, and art, and how they all come together to make films like Star Wars.