West Side Story is a faithful remake alright… faithful as in the fact that it doesn’t bother to update the source material for 2021 in any way, right down to its moral values that we nowadays frown upon. But before going into why Spielberg’s take on the classic is so bad, I’ll first say something extremely unpopular: the original is overrated. When taking off the Hollywoodified rose-tinted glasses with golden rims, the 1961 Best Picture winner is just not a good movie. With its shallow romance and White actors in Brownface trying to act Puerto Rican, it really ought to be banned from public viewing for its ungodly racism and sexism.
This newest version is worse, though.
In the scene where Tony and Maria first meet, streaked lights get in front of both of them, immediately letting you know that there’s no substance between the two of them and their Disney princess romance. There’s more substance in the way the Jets terrorize the place, which in turn makes them terrible role models as they steal paint from a construction site. These punks even put paint over wall art of a Puerto Rican flag and no real punishment comes for it. As a cop car passes by the Jets after they just broke into that construction site… the driver just ignores them; the law enforcement here is way too loosey-goosey compared to how they’d be in real life. Essentially, this movie hates authoritative figures such as cops and doctors and doesn’t care to develop a healthy sense of family between people who are clearly at the low end of the economic ladder.
Yet the depiction of that turmoil within the gangs is plenty effective. The fistfights in particular are quite intense to watch; the camera never sits still to capture the unsettling rage of the two gangs. In fact, there are many genius camera techniques to make the scenery look even more unsettling, such as some solid use of glass and mirror reflection shots that were clearly difficult for the visual effects crew to achieve. I also loved the awesome shot of long shadows on the floor clashing before the gangs’ big showdown. The CGI used to create this historical look of New York really is so seamless, not once do you ever notice the effects, not even in the stunning view of construction with cool desaturated colors to let you know that this will not be like other feel-good musicals. The ambitious effects also include some dreamy lighting that creates colorful lights shining through a stain-glass window, as well as symbolic use of water splashing whenever somebody wants to cry. It’s remarkable to see the different distinct set pieces for every musical number, and every last one of them is memorable while accompanied by Leonard Bernstein’s masterfully adapted score from the original West Side Story, with songs just as wonderful as ever.
If only the acting could live up to the scale of the picture; Ansel Elgort’s (Tony) voice, in particular, is all wrong, and he has no chemistry with Rachel Zegler (Maria), whose voice likewise lacks personality. Maybe it would have helped if they were set up properly on the stage together, but Spielberg’s vision instead just resorts to the familiar tricks. He introduces Maria in the most on-the-nose way with her standing in the balcony setting (she’s Juliet- get it???), and a lighting setup in a bar has a guy with a cigar while he’s backlit—simply because it looks cool. The language barrier isn’t even given consideration with the screen elements, as no subtitles for Spanish dialogue are ever used, which is shameful considering there were many scenes where subtitles would have been useful. So I guess that means you could say this is still just as squeaky-clean and overly romanticized as the original movie, or any 1960s Hollywood musical in that regard.
Worst of all, the dangerous messages of the original remain exactly the same, including that of the play it’s based on, Romeo and Juliet, which says that if the person you are in lust with dies, you have nothing else to live for. Never is the rivalry of the Jets and the Sharks ever resolved nor is there a good reason for them to hate each other, they’re just made to look as polarized as possible with the Jets always wearing blue and the Sharks always wearing red. (And that doesn’t even make sense- do any of them on either side have other colors in their wardrobes?) Here’s the real kicker though to the social irresponsibility: It glosses over what it’s really like to be an immigrant in America during the late 1950s, proving a lack of care for those kinds of people. Heck, there’s even a point when Tony mocks a Puerto Rican accent for no real reason.
So if you showed someone the original West Side Story and the remake back-to-back, it becomes obvious how similar the two really are, practically line-for-line shot-for-shot the same of each other. Yet there’s something much deeper and far more disturbing: not a whole lot has changed in the past sixty years. People are still unbelievably racist and sexist, which is reflected in the media that gets universal praise. While we may not be stupid enough to put White actors in Brownface anymore, we still have no problem in mocking the accents of other cultures or only using them for the sake of entertainment for White men. That, and we still want to give people unhealthy fantasies about relationships that will never work out in the real world, all of which are specifically catered to the male gaze. Knowing that this of all movies is one of the top frontrunners this year for Best Picture should terrify you, and possibly even scare you into leaving America for good.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!