West Side Story | Movie review
For anyone unfamiliar with West Side Story, it is a famous musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet about 1950s gang warfare on the streets of New York. For Latin Americans, the musical evokes complex feelings. On the one hand, the iconic 1961 film is a racist mockery of Latinos, and on the other hand, it is a rare nod from old Hollywood toward representing Latin American people and culture. This new adaptation from Stephen Spielberg has made some significant steps forward, but Hollywood still has a long way to go.
In the original film, multi-award-winning actress Rita Moreno is the only Latin American actor in the whole cast. She was the first Latina to ever win an Oscar and remains one of very few to have done so to this day. All the actors in the original film, including Moreno, wear make-up to darken their skin, and the portrayal of Spanish accents and mannerisms is shockingly stereotypical. In the 2021 revival, Latino characters are thankfully played by Latino actors with authenticity and a sensitive understanding of Latin American culture. However, Spielberg’s adaptation has been noted for inserting snippets of Spanish speech with no subtitles, and while most of the Latino cast speak good Spanish, it is disappointing that a couple of the lead actors do not. In an ironic twist of fate, once again the one lead actor who really sounds like a native Spanish speaker is Moreno.
Having said that, the film has its strengths. Ariana DeBose is a powerful, sexy Anita. The Broadway star shines in Justin Peck’s stunning new dance sequences, which are executed with panache by the fantastic ensemble. DeBose has already been nominated for a well-deserved Golden Globe. Leonard Bernstein’s classic score is given fresh new life by the skilled interpretation of Rachel Zegler in the role of Maria, but unsurprisingly the stand-out performer is the legend that is Moreno who delivers a gut-wrenching solo reprise of Somewhere (There’s a Place For Us). Other areas of note are Adam Stockhausen’s impeccably researched set design and Paul Tazewell’s gorgeous costumes.
However, something which lets the production down is the strange ostracisation of the character of Anybodys, who is portrayed as a tomboy in the 1961 film and as transmasculine in the modern version (played with beautiful sensitivity by the non-binary Ezra Menas). In the original, Anybodys is teased by the other members of the Jets gang but is still part of the group despite their gender expression. In the revival, however, Anybodys is kicked out of scenes like Gee Officer Krupke, despite being included in the original film and having a large role in the stage musical. Here, they are presented as a desperate character whom no one truly loves.
For musical theatre lovers, this is the must-see film of the year. It is a masterpiece of design and features some fantastic performances of a well-loved classic. But as a film that has been hailed for its progressiveness, it could do better. 2021 also gave us the film adaptation of In the Heights, a musical written by a Puerto Rican about his own culture, with a largely Latino creative team. It is in a different league to Spielberg’s West Side Story.
West Side Story is released nationwide on 10th December 2021.
Watch the trailer for West Side Story here: