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): email@example.com
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.