Spielberg’s Take on a Classic
By: Kristin K. Davis
I’ll admit it – I’ve never seen the original West Side Story in full. I’ve only seen bits and pieces throughout the years but grew up with the soundtrack making frequent occurrences in my playlists. Shameful, right? Though, after my viewing of the 2021 remake by Steven Spielberg, it has made its way to the top of my watchlist for the remainder of 2022.
For those who don’t know, the original West Side Story came out in 1961 and is a tragic modern-day Romeo and Juliet. Instead of feuding families, the conflict rests between feuding gangs fighting for “ownership” of the Upper West Side. The white Americans go by the gang name the Jets; the Puerto Ricans’ gang name is the Sharks. When a former Jet named Tony falls in love with Maria, whose brother is the leader of the Sharks, things turn ugly.
In this film, I was intrigued to see what the hubbub was circling Adriana DeBose, as she most recently won a British Academy of Film and Television Award for her role as Anita in the film. I also was speculatory as to what Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony, would bring to the table. Neither DeBose nor Elgort disappoints, though DeBose is most definitely the knockout. In scenes where Elgort fell flat, DeBose never missed a beat from her quick and witty dialogue ping-ponging between herself and her boyfriend, Bernardo, played by David Alvarez, or to her magnificently executed performance of “America”. She is a force to be reckoned with.
Another person I bet we will see blossom as she continues her career is Rachel Zegler, who played Maria. Though some have said that her Puerto Rican accent was a bit questionable, I found that the way she sang each song as if on an emotional rollercoaster was a beautiful tactic to make the viewer feel more engaged within her story. When she needed to draw out the tension of an emotion, she would get rather subtle and almost sing to herself. Yet when she needed to sing as if she were in agreement to something in a conversation, she belted her little heart out. Both sides of her voice showed immense range in both her singing abilities and her acting skills.
Potentially the biggest draw to this film (outside of it being a Speilberg film) is that it marks the return of the beloved Rita Moreno who played the original Anita in 1962. In this version, she plays a lovely lady by the name of Valentina and serves as the moral compass for the young adults in this movie. Moreno has gone on record saying that even during filming she would tell stories and answer questions that “the kids” would ask her as they’d gather around her during breaks in filming.
The character of Valentina is a widow from an interracial relationship with the local general store owner. She was the little Puerto Rican girl who married the white American boy. Seeing the two gangs that are the makeup of her own love story, she’s heartbroken and distraught to see so much vitriolic hate being spewed in the light of Tony and Maria’s love story. Moreno runs with this racial tension to act as a beautiful tragic playground of generational trauma to use as the foundation for the soul she puts behind her performance in “Somewhere”.
Though seemingly perfect, my only “problems” with the film were a few instances of personal preference and the casting of Ansel Elgort. Not due to the scandals that since filming have come out, but the age gap between him and Zegler was a bit too obvious for my liking.
Overall, I had a phenomenal experience with this film and these women. In the name of March being International Womens’ Month, they all provide strong examples within their characters of showcasing her strength.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Where to Watch: Disney+