Award-winning director Steven Spielberg’s first musical movie West Side Story goes above and beyond its predecessor with beautiful vocals, extraordinarily well-choreographed numbers, and intense focus on the story’s key message.
The original West Side Story premiered in 1957 winning best picture at the 34th academy awards. The movie is a classic but hasn’t aged well due to the casting of white Americans as Puerto Rican characters. The role of Maria was given to Natalie Wood a white actress, who fit the role solely by beauty standards but couldn’t measure up to Maria’s lovely soprano voice thus being dubbed over by Marni Nixon.
The 2021 remake however does falter in some retrospects. Though Rachel Zegler shines as Maria she and a few more of the Sharks are not in fact Puerto Rican. This has angered some fans who are comparing it to the original’s ignorance, by not casting actors authentic enough to play their respective roles.
Others are pointing out Steven Spielberg, a white man, is directing this story that aims to portray diversity and racial equality but has often failed due to the show’s complicated history that has often erased Puerto Rican experiences in favor of not isolating a white audience.
The film does take steps in the right direction, however. Rita Moreno, who originated the role of Anita in the 1957 film, is an executive producer. The film also features multiple unsubbed sequences of Spanish dialogue allowing for non-Spanish speaking white audiences to be isolated for a bit, a role that they’re not used to but is necessary to allow for a more engaging experience.
The performances are phenomenal. The standouts easily are Mike Faist as Riff and Ariana DeBose as Anita. The two are broadway alumni with Faist originating the role of Connor in “Dear Evan Hansen” and DeBose playing the subtle but crucial ensemble member in “Hamilton” known as The Bullet. When they’re not stunning audiences with their vocals and captivating dancing, their emotional performances never stumble. Their poignance and sincerity shines through in their characters.
Mike Faist especially, playing the rough-around the edges Riff who’s performance genuinely entraps the audience in his hateful dialogue, further immersing viewers in the true darker sides of America and forcing white audiences to look inward at their preconceptions and other biases.
The musical numbers are all magnificent but the Jet’s introductory number and the colorful but pertinent “America” stand out especially. Perhaps the lyrics’ unchanged relevance is the most staggering realization throughout the film. The lyrics to “America” were mostly unchanged from the original film and yet there is still an extensive amount of work to be done in terms of representation in Hollywood and overall racial equity throughout the country.
Every frame in this movie, even when depicting assault and violence is a complete, monumental joy. The viewers feel the raw emotion and struggles of these characters from the Jets being raised in broken, unloving homes, to the Sharks being forced to assimilate in a society that claims to promise freedom only to be systemically wired against them.
The film aims to balance the themes of hate and love and it does so masterfully. It’s vibrant dance numbers, heart-breaking powerful climax, and vigorous and lively setting of 1950’s New York City paint a cinematic classic that will be remembered for decades to come.
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