West Side Story: just in time for Valentine’s Day

Spielberg’s latest adaptation is cute and romantic, but not much else

Leela Addepalli

Steven Spielberg’s remake of the hit 1960s film, “West Side Story,” is a stunning portrayal of teenage stupidity and immature romance. Unfortunately, it also serves as a great example of magnificently useless remakes with huge budgets.

The opening scene sets the tone of the Romeo-Juliet adaptation, with the sign “New York port authority Slum Clearance” amid post-war-esque rubble. The cliché-packed movie depicts the fraught relations between two gangs – the Sharks (made up of Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (made of “gringo” white Americans) – who are fighting for their shrinking territory in a soon-to-be gentrified Lincoln Centre, New York. The original Broadway musical debuted in 1957 and was adapted for film by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise in 1961

The opening scene very quickly transitions into a rather beautiful amalgamation of the lawlessness of 1950s NYC and gang members pirouetting on the streets of the city. The Jets are led by Riff (Mike Fast) and the Sharks are led by the gorgeous Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the main romantic arc is between Riff’s best friend Tony (Ansel Elgort), and Bernardo’s sister María (Rachel Zegler, in her debut performance). Notably, the Spielberg adaptation brings back Rita Moreno – who played Anita in the 1961 film – for a role altered especially for her:  Valentina (in place of the original “Doc”), who gives Tony a home and a second chance at life. 

The original “West Side Story” (1961) dealt with a lot of important themes: gentrification, racism, poverty and living on the fringes of a post-world war society that is hyper capitalist and exclusive. However, it is surrounded by controversies due to its use of brownface to portray Latinx characters. The Spielberg adaption expands on the original themes, but uses a Latinx cast, including Afro-Latina Anita (Ariana DeBose), whose identity gives a new depth to the character. Another new dynamic in the adaptation is character “Anybodys”, played by Iris Menas, a non-binary actor who adapted this role into a trans-man in Spielberg’s version, compared to the original tomboy in 1961. In a nutshell, this adaptation sees some much-needed representation through a diverse cast that explores themes that are relevant even 60 years after the original was released.

I really enjoyed a lot of the visual aspects of the 2021 adaptation. While most musicals are notorious for their coordinated costumes and spontaneous synchronised dancing, “West Side Story” seems to incorporate these aspects naturally into the storyline, and you are not only expecting dialogues to be delivered in lyrical form, but also left wanting more. The music in the film is not incidental, but also plays important roles – empowerment and revolution for the Puerto Ricans who often feel like outsiders pursuing the American Dream (as in the song “America”), and as a romantic tool and comic relief on the part of the lead romantic pair and the Sharks (as in “I feel pretty,” “One Hand, One Heart” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”).

Now that I’ve covered all the salient features of the film, let me get to the actual critique. As someone who has watched too many Romeo and Juliet adaptations, “West Side Story” is nothing new or ground-breaking. I went in with pretty high hopes, considering it’s a Steven Spielberg film, but it did not deliver. The plot drags, the script is subpar, and a lot of the dialogue is in unsubtitled Spanish, which is a huge step for inclusivity, but this is counterproductive for a commercial film that aims to reach international audiences. 

Rachel Zelger’s acting is cute, but a little too sincere; she seems like a little kid that’s trying too hard and has mastery over only two expressions. By the time she’s singing “Boy Like That/I have a love,” you really just want to pat her on her head and tell her to go to bed. 

Ansel Elgort gives an adequate performance, but in light of the unaddressed sexual assault allegations against him, it made me quite sick to see him, a 27-year-old man, fall “in love” with 18-year-old María and get married in a mock ceremony within 20 minutes of knowing each other. 

The 2021 adaptation also serves as a positive reflection of incarceration. Tony emerges from prison a changed man who sees the error of his old gangster ways, a storyline that’s notably absent from the original script. Depending on your politics, you might see this as a good or bad thing. 

The film does do a better job than its original in terms of casting, but that is not reason enough for an entire remake. I suppose the film comes just in time for love-addled couples looking for a pre-Valentine’s celebration, but it doesn’t do much more than that. 

If you’re looking for a cutesy make-out movie this Valentine’s Day, buy your tickets now, but for more cynical watchers like this reviewer, the new Spiderman movie might be a better choice. Both movies are currently playing at the RC State Cinema in Lexington, and matinee shows are only $6 per seat.