After receiving seven Oscar nominations in categories like “Best Picture,” “Best Cinematography,” and “Best Actress in a Supporting Role,” Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story appears to be one of the best films of 2021. West Side Story (2021) is Spielberg’s remake of Stephen Sondheim’s timeless 1957 musical of the same name. Although Spielberg’s cinematic expertise clearly shines throughout the film, he focused much more on appearances than content.
The plot echoes a tale as old as time: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Instead of a feud between the Montagues and Capulets, however, West Side Story chronicles the conflict between rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, in 1950s New York City. At its core, West Side Story follows the forbidden love between Maria, the younger sister of the Sharks' leader Bernardo, and Tony, a reformed, ex-member of the Jets.
While Spielberg’s interpretation of the musical holds merit as a standalone film, watching this reimagining only made me want to watch its critically acclaimed 1961 predecessor. The 2021 version possesses many good elements – beautiful camerawork, immersive soundd esign, fantastic sets – but as a reimagining, it falls short of improving enjoyability. By adding a modern flair, Spielberg completely neglects the most important part of the film: the characters. Beneath all of the film's frills and editing, there are dubious casting choices, dodgy acting and poor singing.
Before diving into the deep end of the movie’s flaws, I cannot ignore the film’s greatest strength: Rachel Zegler. The theater kid turned movie star effortlessly carries the film through her genuine and heartfelt portrayal of Maria. Easily triumphing over Natalie Wood's 1961 performance, Zegler was the most unexpected yet most memorable part of the movie. While many would hesitate to cast some random person on the internet for such a famous role, Spielberg’s commitment to auditioning Zegler – her audition process lasted a year and involved constant callbacks – proved to be worthwhile.
Unfortunately, using Zegler as the film's benchmark for performance exposes the its weakest link: Ansel Elgort. His performance in the film is practically the opposite of Zegler's. He delivers his lines flatly, his singing is unremarkable and his chemistry with the cast is almost nonexistent. The only reason he seems to be in this movie is to attract fans who’ve followed him from his leading roles in movies like The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Baby Driver (2017).
Note: The decision to cast Ansel Elgort has become especially controversial due to recent sexual assault allegations against him. Because these allegations are extraneous from his performance, they are absent in this article. For more information, here is a timeline of the allegations against him.
The Puerto Rican representation in West Side Story (2021) is bittersweet. While a complete Latine cast for the Sharks finally fixes the inexcusable issue of brownface in the original film, the largely unchanged screenplay still stereotypes and misrepresents Puerto Rican culture and identity. Although Spielberg does make an effort to respect cultural authenticity by removing English subtitles when characters speak Spanish, he completely ignores the fact that every Puerto Rican character is based on stereotypes. It’s also worth noting that in addition to a predominantly white production team, Maria and Bernardo, two main Puerto Rican characters in the story, are not played by Puerto Rican actors.
Similarly, one of the film's other weaknesses is its half-hearted inclusion of a transgender character. Spielberg decided to make side character Anybodys, who was a tomboy in the original 1957 script, a transgender man. Although the inclusion of a transgender character is a welcome addition to a strictly cisgender cast, Spielberg makes little attempt to develop Anybodys' personality. This change seems more like cheap bait to the LGBTQ+ community than a strong political statement on the gender binary and stereotypes.
Ansel Elgort's casting as Tony, as well as the emphasis on pretty camera angles and carelessly added political messages make West Side Story (2021) reek of quick cash grab. While Spielberg succeeds at delivering an entertaining and politically relevant cinematic experience, it all comes with a sense of artificiality. Spielberg's many inconsistencies make it look like he wasn't trying to improve upon the previous film. Rather, it seems he wanted to deliver a pretty but subpar spectacle to attract modern audiences.
This film improves upon its predecessor in numerous ways – more Latine leads, better representation, a strong anti-racist message – and I do recommend watching it. However, I cannot help but dream of what it could have been. Instead of the definitive way to experience a classic musical, it feels like just another Disney 3D remake – an unnecessary but adequate alternative for a perfectly fine film. The only thing that it lacked was a CGI version of Will Smith as the Genie.