Rant and Rave: Life could be brighter in ‘West Side Story’

It all begins with a swooping shot over buildings, streets, and the overall cityscape of New York City. The familiar three-note whistle welcomes us into the West side of Manhattan in the mid-1950s. Fingers snap and the sound of shoes clatter on a dusty construction site; around the corner, they appear in herds, waiting for the right moment to strike. That could only mean one thing—something’s coming. 

While the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story took us beyond the boundaries of downstage left and upstage right set by the Broadway musical, this Steven Spielberg-directed film takes us deeper into the heart of San Juan Hill. The result is a fresh take on the politically charged, Romeo and Juliet-esque musical classic many generations of cinephiles can relate to.

There’s a time

As the world created in the movie expands in form and bursts with color, it shows that the real west side story goes beyond the Jets and the Sharks—the rivaling all-white and all-Puerto Rican gangs, respectively. Although the film honors the Broadway musical’s original settings and conflicts, it dives deeper into topics that only modern-day viewers would be brave enough to talk about. 

For instance, the choice to present a more graphic depiction of violence is a far cry from the sugarcoated musical and original film adaptation; punches and kicks are thrown in anger, not as part of a choreographed dance. This conflict is further explored as the film presents a new motivator for the two gangs. Stuck within the poverty-stricken site of the future Lincoln Center—a territory the Jets and Sharks seek to defend—their rivalry is no longer a petty turf war. It’s now a struggle to retrieve what remains of the rubble.

Spielberg’s directorial choices nodded to how timely this portrayal still is. One example is how dialogue done in Spanish is not subtitled. According to Spielberg, this was deliberate as adding subtitles would be “giving English the power over the Spanish.” This respect and celebration of Latino culture, from the casting choices down to changes in lyrics to reflect more modern times, adds even more zest to a beloved piece of musical history.

When you’re a Jet

But what is a musical without its animated cast of characters? Taking inspiration from Romeo and Juliet, the Jets and the Sharks represent the mid-century versions of the rivaling Montagues and Capulets, respectively. With the setting veering away from fair Verona, the story’s Romeo and Juliet are the dashing yet troubled Tony and courageously headstrong Maria Vasquez, respectively. 

Ansel Elgort shows his range as a performer through his role as Tony, with this being his first musical role after starring in teen movies and action blockbusters. However, the jubilation for his performance is cut short after allegations of sexual assault in 2020—at the height of promotions for the film. There is still much to celebrate though, such as Rachel Zegler’s angelic performance as Maria. Unlike Natalie Wood’s interpretation, she is unafraid to express her desires to be involved in the workforce, and she better understands the gravity of the gangs’ rivalry. These qualities make Zegler’s Maria superior to Wood’s.

Perhaps the biggest name in all the three West Side Story productions is Anita. Filling in the shoes that Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno danced in, Ariana DeBose’s Academy Award-nominated portrayal oozes with life. Throughout the film, she expertly portrays her triple threat qualities in every scene she’s in, as if electricity continuously streams out of her feet. 

As for the rest of the Jets and the Sharks, David Alvarez’s Bernardo and Mike Faist’s Riff command the audiences’ attention with their striking personalities. It is noteworthy that while Alvarez is able to expand Bernardo’s character arc, further development on his backstory would’ve benefited his performance. 

What surprised many was Moreno’s involvement in the film—not in a cameo performance, but in a fully fleshed out role that was specifically written for her. Valentina is the widow of Doc, the owner of Doc’s Drug Store in all versions of West Side Story. Here, Moreno still proves she has the acting chops to draw out a commendable performance. Hopefully, Valentina makes her way in the revivals as she is more a favorable mentor compared to Doc.  

Keeping it ‘Cool’

In respecting Bernstein and Sondheim’s music in the original Broadway musical, West Side Story fortunately does not succumb to the trope where its melodies sound too modern. Unlike the atrocious remake of Cats or the already pop-inspired The Greatest Showman, the 2021 film successfully transports viewers to the height of the golden age of musical theater.

In terms of music, an issue that this version fixes is its song arrangement. The comedic Gee, Officer Krupkee and I Feel Pretty, and the jazz-inspired, finger-snappy, albeit unnecessary, Cool in the 1961 film deviated from the Broadway stagings’ placements. However, the remake further modifies these songs’ placements to make the sequencing more close-knit. As a result, the 2021 film is the most musically cohesive iteration. 

Unfortunately, the film had a missed opportunity to create an additional song—or two—for the Puerto Rican characters in the film. While America is a mainstay in West Side Story, and Somewhere was given to Moreno’s character, a melody for the male Sharks or even Bernardo would have made them more well-rounded, developed, and even sympathetic.

Film adaptations of Broadway and West End musicals are no stranger to crafting new tunes to add new elements or expand character arcs. The 2021 film could’ve easily followed the film versions of Lés Miserables, The Sound of Music, and Hello, Dolly! to include movie exclusive tracks. After all, these songs were made for us to really get to know these characters more.

The world is a star

As with any musical film, costuming is vital in its narrative. West Side Story effectively uses color and couture to visually tell its story. In the vein of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land—a celebrated modern piece itself—vibrant hues complement how the characters act and are perceived by the cast and the audience.

This is most evident in the clothes Maria wears throughout the film. When the audience first sees her in the iconic white dress and red belt combination, it represents how Bernardo and the rest of the cast merely see her as a meek, young soul coming out of her shell. She eventually wears bolder, more striking colors further into the movie to symbolize her self-sufficiency.

While Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is not perfect, it certainly rivals the 1961 film’s high regard. One does not find the fantastical, dream-like elements in the first film adaptation and original Broadway musical; however, its more realistic tones strike audiences as a story that can happen even today. 

The film is a perfect commentary on how violence, discrimination, and prejudice can stimulate movements that aim for social peace and progress. Perhaps giving Somewhere to Valentina makes much more sense now. As she longs for a place where racism and hate are nowhere to be found, she calls for the audience to reflect among themselves. After all, “We’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving.” 

Rating: 3.5/4.0
Magz Chin

By Magz Chin

Ana Mapa

By Ana Mapa

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