It’s been 60 years since West Side Story received its iconic film adaptation. Even despite its brown-face issues, it remains one of the most praised film adaptations to this day. In fact, I can draw a line from my love of musicals and film to the 1961 adaptation, which stared one lone Latina–and I’m not alone.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, West Side Story (2021) features a screenplay adaptation from Tony Kushner, based on the stage play and book by Arthur Laurents. It also features lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, which includes updates to iconic musical numbers. The film stars Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, and Rita Moreno.
Thankfully, Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story has corrected some of the sins of the past, including casting Latine actors for the Sharks and their families, and removing one of the most offensive lines from the musical in “America.” But even while correcting those elements, West Side Story holds onto some bad habits from the past. How so? The accents.
Each and every speaking Puerto Rican character speaks with a thick accent, stretched to the hyperbolic proportion made famous by Rita Moreno, who herself has commented on it as not being a “true” accent. While the accent itself is frustrating as someone who grew up surrounded by Spanish accents, it’s the jarring back and forth of Spanish spoken with an accent and English spoken with an accent and nothing really feeling real. While some characters can carry their accent into their singing voices with ease, like Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo, and stand out powerfully because of it, it’s the film’s lead, Maria, who falters under the weight of exaggerated rolling r’s and high notes.
Now, Zegler isn’t bad as Maria, but she isn’t a standout, falling short when put in the same scenes as other actresses, most notably DeBose. In one of the film’s most emotional moments where the two sing “A Boy Like That,” DeBose is triumphant. The singing argument, filled with emotion and grief, is powered by Anita, and Zegler’s Maria is overshadowed by that. Zegler gives a meek performance acting against an emotionally aware and powerful one from DeBose. While Zegler holds her own when acting against Elgort, she can’t hold much in other moments.
Truly, West Side Story belongs to Anita. Given more content and drive than in the original, with updates to her more powerful moments, namely “America,” DeBose is given the time to shine. In the last scene of the film, the one that still makes my skin crawl, DeBose is a vision of rage and grief, and her final words pull all air from the room. DeBose left me wanting to see Anita’s life before the film’s events, and her relationship with Bernardo, which we see more of in this adaptation.
On the Jets side of things, Elgort as Tony is fine if not overacted in a melodramatic way that doesn’t even fit a musical. That said, Mike Faist, as Riff, the film’s leading antagonist, is not only strong but completely carries the Jets’ performances. Despite physically being smaller than Elgort, Faist towers over him in charisma and determination in his role. With a voice that has range both while singing and delivering spoken lines, Riff is a character that is both easy to hate and that you want to see more of.
In truth, West Side Story is a mixed bag. Some elements hit like a train, and others are a whiff. Spielberg manages to recapture the magic when it comes to characters like Anita, and the film’s updates and inclusion of Rita Moreno as an original character work well. But other choices like the accents and some changes in scenery stick out and induce an eye-roll instead of applause.
If you were in love with West Side Story (1961), you’ll be in love with Spielberg’s West Side Story. If you loved the premise in all of its bad pacing and “oh no, what are you doing” moments as it stands, then seeing it in 2021 won’t be a problem. But if you go into the film expecting something new and completely updated, you won’t find it here, and while it didn’t promise that it would deliver that, the film has to carry the weight of the past, and sometimes, it buckles.
If In the Heights was a vibrant look at where Latine are going in musicals, West Side Story serves as a dull specter of our past that hasn’t come far from the original theatrical version. The parts that worked before, work today. The parts that didn’t work have mostly received a facelift. It’s safe to say that with this adaptation, West Side Story’s legacy remains intact, but I’m not sure that nostalgia alone is enough to warrant it.
West Side Story is in theaters nationwide on December 10, 2021.
West Side Story
If In the Heights was a vibrant look at where Latine are going in musicals, West Side Story serves as a dull specter of our past. The parts that worked before work today. The parts that didn’t have received a facelift. It’s safe to say that with this adaptation, West Side Story’s legacy remains intact, but I’m not sure that nostalgia alone is enough to warrant it.