West Side Story (2021) is an exceptional remake, despite problematic lead and box office failure

February 5, 2022

Design by Alexandra Giorno

Content warning: This article mentions sexual assault.

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) provides its audience with one of the most delightful yet devastating movie-going experiences of the year, complete with kaleidoscopic, dancing-filled highs and grittier, melancholic lows. While some films might struggle to bridge the gap between polar tonal beats, West Side Story shifts between light and dark with efficiency and ease, thanks in large part to the cast’s superb acting chops. 

Although the new film’s pure cinematic quality justifies its remake status, West Side Story also sets itself apart in a box office brimming with senseless sequels and remakes. From an equity standpoint, it is a necessary one: In the original 1961 film, many of the Puerto Rican characters were portrayed by white actors in brown face, rather than being played by Latino actors. The modern version aims to rectify the failures of its predecessor by casting a diverse array of Latin American actors and actresses that represent the diaspora of the Latino community. Although not all of the actors are actually Puerto Rican, which has sparked some controversy, this film seems to offer a step towards the right direction. Additionally, though there are many scenes predominantly spoken in Spanish, the lack of English subtitles challenges the notion that movies must cater to English speakers, further distinguishing the 2021 version from the original.

A modern interpretation of the Romeo and Juliet story, West Side Story also distinguishes itself from its predecessor by improving upon virtually all of the beloved musical numbers. The three-part “The Dance at The Gym” scene is the first truly outstanding number of the film. Bursting at the seams with vivacity, the scene is charged with the urge to get up and dance after watching Ariana DeBose command the floor so brilliantly as Anita. Additionally, seeing Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria’s (Rachel Zegler) stories finally intertwine after the exchange of a piercing, tentative, and curious stare is an absolutely electric experience. The charming awkwardness of their clandestine conversation and stolen slow dance behind the bleachers makes their dynamic all the more lovable. Our love for their relationship only deepens during “Balcony Scene (Tonight),” as they dreamily orbit around one another before sealing their forbidden romance with a kiss in an enchanting sequence.

Though the choreography and production are stellar, Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose are the heart and soul of West Side Story. Zegler gives a remarkable performance in her breakout leading role. Her empowered, confident, and endlessly optimistic Maria is a welcome interpretation of the character, updating the more passive 1961 Maria with gusto while still retaining her heart. Zegler’s angelic, crystal clear voice soars across tunes like “I Feel Pretty” and “Tonight,” with, to quote the late Stephen Sondheim, the tone of a “nightingale.” Meanwhile, Ariana DeBose of Hamilton (2015) and The Prom (2020) fame gives a commanding and compelling portrayal of Anita, complete with an effortless blend of strength and vulnerability. In “America,” the musical’s love letter to “Latin joy,” DeBose’s energy is positively infectious, even surpassing the vibrancy of the scene’s bright and colorful costumes and sets. When these two musical powerhouses collide on “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love,” (a number sung live no less!) the impact is bombastic and beautiful. If viewers weren’t blown away by their performances before, this number was sure to seal the deal. For all of these reasons, it was no surprise that Zegler and DeBose both managed to snag Golden Globes in the 2021 cycle.

Although carrying the heart of the film falls upon Zegler and DeBose’s shoulders, the rest of the cast does not disappoint. The return of Rita Moreno, the original Anita, as Valentina, was a joy to watch, especially when she has the opportunity to sing her breathtaking rendition of “Somewhere.” Additionally, Mike Faist is delightfully devious as Riff, and David Alvarez is equally dynamic as Bernardo.

However, amidst discussions of the cast, there is, of course, the Ansel Elgort of it all. Nine months after shooting for West Side Story had wrapped, Elgort was publicly accused of sexually assaulting a 17 year old girl in 2014 when he was 20.

Considering he is the male lead, Elgort’s role in the film is impossible to ignore. When prompted about the circumstances, the cast and Spielberg alike provided either vague or nonexistent responses, creating a dynamic that fails to support the survivor who came forward. Although Elgort denies these claims, some viewers may find it difficult to enjoy the acting of a potential perpetrator. 

In addition to having to incentivize audiences to attend despite the problematic past of its male lead, West Side Story dealt with a myriad of other factors that led to its weak box office debut. The film grossed only $10.6 million, while needing $300 million to break even. Many sources blame the outbreak of the Omicron variant as a source of hesitancy for moviegoers. Others attribute the film’s competition with No Way Home (2021)’s massive debut weekend. Perhaps our newfound familiarity with home releases on streaming platforms is another reason getting back to theaters has become a difficult sell. Considering that this film was easily the best movie musical of the year, even alongside great releases such as tick, tick…BOOM! (2021) and In The Heights (2021), it is a shame to see this remake’s unfortunate flop at the box office.

West Side Story’s box office bombing is also unfortunate because of, in the words of DeBose, the lengths to which the creative team went to “celebrate the diaspora of the Hispanic community.” Hopefully, the critical praise and accolades the film has received, notably West Side Story’s four Golden Globes wins, including the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy, and its overall symbolic importance is enough to incentivize film companies to make more films with vibrant and authentic Latino representation in the future.

Georgetown and D.C. Confidential Resources:

Health Education Services (HES): sarp@georgetown.edu

Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS): (202) 687-6985; after hours, call (833) 960-3006 to reach Fonemed, a telehealth service; individuals may ask for the on-call CAPS clinician

DC Rape Crisis Center: (202) 333-RAPE (24/7 Hotline)

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN): 1-800-656-HOPE (24/7 hotline)

Title IX Online Reporting Form: georgetown.protocall.info/incident-report.


Hailey Wharram
Hailey is a senior from Richmond, Virginia studying English, journalism, and film and media studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. When she isn’t writing for The Voice, she loves songwriting, reading, scrupulously updating her Letterboxd profile, and romanticizing her life one Spotify playlist at a time.

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White face? People from Latin America can be of European, West African, Indigenous or Asian Ancestry. What is this Brown face ideology? The majority of Hispanic American are of European Ancestry so why should Latin actors have to be of Latin origin? Who created this idea that Latins are Brown? It is obviously a false
Claim. The origins of the Latin culture is Lazio Italy. What nonsense is this Brown race idea.
Spanish is a European Language. Latin is a European language that later evolved into the Romance languages. The people of Latin America have European ancestry. Many of mix ancestry but the largest genetic and cultural component is of European origin. So where is the Brown race ideology coming from?
The Westside Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, another story with Latin characters from Italy. And yes Italian culture is a Latin culture. The Hispanic cultures in the usa don’t need to be categorized as a Brown race. The Hispanic culture itself originated in Europe and the Spanish language is European. The Puerto Rican people are of predominately European ancestry. There is no such thing as Brown race. This is a pop culture USA marketing idea not based on any anthropological fact. Stop spreading misinformation.

IRVIN Watkins

Thanks Rex for your well thought out points. I would add that those pushing ‘identity politics’ will stop at nothing to spread their hatred which divides people rather than uniting people through qualities which both Tony and Maria manifested which transcends the false demagoguery of dividing people by ‘race,’ color, or ethnicity when there is only one human race.

What is most noteworthy to recognize is character, grace, generosity, and love not whether one is Puerto Rican or ‘White,’ which is a false (pseudoscience) category altogether created by slavers and now endorsed as a rerun by those pushing identity politics over character and personal attributes. If people looked first for worthwhile qualities which all people can aspire to before race, color, ethnicity, gender, with the latter a distant second if at all, then the world would be a much better place in USA, Ukraine, Israel, and every other country.

Maria and Tony believed likewise and that is what set them apart from most of the other characters except Valentina. Maria and Tony ‘first saw the person;’ they didn’t ask first if that person is Puerto Rican or ‘White.’

West Side Story came out in 1961 when JFK was President and this country had hope for the future. Do people think of JFK as the ‘Irish President?” No they remember him for his grace, wit, charm, candor, and that he gave Americans a united sense of purpose..

Long-Giang Le

It’s not non-sense:

Calling it/ labeling it nonsense dismisses and fails to acknowledge the progress that’s been made over the past few decades – especially since Obama’s election:

Let’s face some truths/ facts: People are judged differently based on HOW DARK their skin is.

In fact if you have a deeper tan or darker skin (which happens if you expose yourself more to the sun etc), you can either :

1) be embarrassed and try to stay “lighter skinned” (I did this during parts of my early 20s / late teens when I started to realize these societal factors… I didn’t want to be seen as “dark skinned minority”.

I turned 20 around the turn of the century. Prior to 2000.

I then realized as time went by that some people judge you because if you are dark skinned that means you have been “working under the sun” and that implies some “less sophistocated” work in contrast to “working in an office” where you stay more pale.

THe bottom line is – these skin color issues have been around for decades and it has been ABOUT TIME (or as Lizzo would say “about DAMN time”) for some of these changes and corrections.

Some of you will never acknowledge these truths – it’s almost a waste of time worrying about that…. there will always be people living in denial.

Like my old coach who tried that a couple months ago – I told him right online :”Mr R you are living in denial about the FBI’s raid of Trumps’ home”

And now he just looks more and more sadly foolish as even republicans like Paul Ryan said last week “If we keep sticking with trump, we the GOP keep losing elections”.

Just glad and thankful for Spielberg, for these recent national elections that rejected a lot of Republican Trump-backed candidates and ideas..

Just grateful for progress in this country that just got re-affirmed by the GOP failure to take over the Senate or have a huge majority in the House like they acted like they should have…

A good Thanksgiving Weekend.

IRVIN Watkins

As of April 2020, the box office gross is up to $76 million though still short of $300M break even point.