Downside of "West Side Story"

By Linda Cheung


“West Side Story” (2021) is arguably one of the most influential musicals this year based on its cinematography, theatricality, and seamlessness among the script, music, dance and set. Contrasting from its 1961 original picture, “West Side Story”(2021) has abundant Latino representation from the diversity of the cast, featuring Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Anita), David Alvarez (Bernardo) and Rita Moreno (Valentina). In the reimagined version of the film, Rita Moreno takes on a new role as Valentina, the widow of Doc, who is the drug store owner and close friends with the Jets. Screenwriter Tony Kushner gives meaning to Valentina’s character as social commentary on mixed-race marriages, and Valentina’s relationship with Tony further emphasizes this message of racial inclusivity.


Source by Saffah Azeem

Maria and Tony are shown, distanced by their backgrounds.


There were multiple changes to this film, separating the 2021 version from its 20th century counterpart. In the original “West Side Story” movie, the character “Anybodys” was a tomboy whose goal was to be accepted as a member of the Jets, while the 2021 version casts “Anybodys” as a transgender man played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas. By the end of the film, the character becomes an accepted member of the Jets and has a character arc, unlike the original film, which used a female character as a throwaway joke. With Spielberg and Kushner portraying the character as a transgender man hoping to become a member of the Jets, they provide sociopolitical context as well as nuance and depth to a film that previously had little to none.


Furthermore, “West Side Story” (2021) provides a historical reason as to why the Sharks and the Jets are fighting in the San Juan Hill neighborhood. In the story, the Puerto Ricans are being evicted from their homes as a result of a new project meant to build Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and amongst all the demolition plans within the community, the Sharks and Jets are struggling to coexist under the threat of slum-clearance projects. These added layers of historical context provide the viewer with sociopolitical commentary on the effects of gentrification within the community. While the story itself is not based on real events, the underlying themes and messages of the film draw parallels to societal conflicts seen today.


“‘West Side Story’ was such a fantastic movie that definitely did a great job at putting a fresh spin on an iconic musical," sophomore Guranaad Kaur said. "However, I have conflicting feelings on the representation in the movie. On one hand, it is known as a big step forward for American cultural representations of Puerto Ricans, and the remake made sure to have every Latino character played by Latino actors (a fact that other productions didn’t get right). However, there is rightful criticism of some stereotypes that the Sharks were written under, which is a deeply rooted aspect of the musical. Overall, I feel that the sociopolitical commentary present in the movie did fall a bit flat, and I think that future adaptations can learn from some of this adaptation’s mistakes. However, I was overjoyed to hear that Ariana DeBose won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Anita.”


Despite rave reviews from critics towards the cinematography, acting, plot and other categories, “West Side Story” (2021) flopped in the box office at $74.6 million in profit with a $100 million cinematic budget. Some argue that the widely unknown cast may have contributed to the loss in revenue, since the film featured rising stars such as Mike Faist and Zegler respectively, an actor and actress who were largely unfamiliar to Hollywood before their performances in “West Side Story.” Moreover, many believe the reason for the loss in profits was because the film was pitted against “Spiderman: No Way Home,” a film that quickly dominated the box office since its theatrical release.


Many also speculate that the lack of chemistry between Ansel Elgort (Tony) and Rachel Zegler (Maria) may have contributed to the low box office sales. The difference in the level of acting between Ansel Elgort and the rest of the cast causes some to believe that Elgort’s lackluster performance hindered the film’s growth. Additionally, some argue that Elgort was even miscast in “West Side Story” due to his flat singing voice, uncomfortable dancing, and awkward demeanor. Moreover, there have been sexual assault allegations against Elgort since 2020, alleging that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl when he was a 20-year-old adult in 2014. The Twitter user described Elgort’s supposed actions as “predatory,” while he denied the allegations and deemed the relationship as “consensual.”


“Although some say Ansel Elgort has been talented since his ‘Fault in Our Stars’ days, I firmly believe that he only got this role due to the fact that he had sung and had been creating music for years," sophomore Navpreet Singh said. "Rachel Zegler had the lead role without that past history. I like to think he took this part because he wanted to stir the press away from the sexual assault accusations, which eventually led to the opposite reaction.”


Ultimately, “West Side Story” (2021) provides layers of complex sociopolitical commentary and historical context which continues to draw parallels between New York City in the 1950s and the present day. The integration of the acting, screenwriting, directing, cinematography and choreography allowed the film to attract extraordinary reviews, especially with stellar performances from DeBose, Faist, Alvarez, Zegler and Moreno.