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West Side Story: What’s Wrong With the Original?

When the news first broke out that Steven Spielberg, recipient of multiple Oscars for “Best Director”, was tackling his first musical - the iconic, epic tragedy West Side Story - my initial thought was: did I ask? Hollywood is overflowing with remakes, and whenever a trailer for a new version of a popular 70s flick emerges, my dad loses the battle against the urge to mutter, “What’s wrong with the original?”. More often than not, there isn’t anything wrong with the original. Rather, Hollywood sees an opportunistic safety net in the form of big-budget remakes, “reboots” and unnecessary sequels of fan favourites. With A-list directors attached and stars from the original alongside some fresh-faced new ones, projects like these almost guarantee them a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a handful of Oscar nominations (unless the film is Ghostbusters).

In the name of monetary profit and easy critical success, the Hollywood remake creates an oversaturation of repeated storylines and narrative predictability that’s akin to spoon-feeding mainstream audiences. It also blocks the path for more original screenplays, hindering emerging talent in the film industry. That said, I’m a sucker for a good musical - such a sucker that I was willing to put aside my disdain for these formulaic reboots in order to jump aboard the West Side Story bandwagon. My main takeaway from Spielberg’s adaptation? This is a case where there actually is something wrong with the original. The 1961 versionis undoubtedly a spectacle, but the fact that the white, American actress Natalie Wood plays Maria is pretty damning. In hindsight, the minimal Puerto Rican presence in the cast and the cringe-inducing use of brownface makes for downright uncomfortable viewing.

The original West Side Story (Source: TCM)

Spielberg manages to produce a self-aware adaptation which eradicates the blatantly racist undertones of the film’s predecessor by pumping an authenticity into the motion picture, not only uses Latinx actors but also naturally transitions between English and Spanish throughout the telling of the story. Being the second most spoken language in the U.S. after English, the film intentionally opted out of including subtitles for Spanish segments of speech. Beyond being a nice touch of ingenuity to the remake, this decision also creates a sense of symbolic equality between the film’s rival gangs: the American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks.

If it were down to me I would have preferred to see a Puerto Rican director behind 2021’s West Side Story. Nevertheless, Spielberg does a decent job of bringing that much-needed authenticity into the musical through the film’s careful casting and production. Rita Moreno who played Anita in the 1961 motion picture was one of the only Puerto Rican actors in the original. Fast-forward to the present day and it’s evident that Moreno sensed some ignorance in the original: she now acts as an executive producer alongside Spielberg, as well as taking on the supporting role of Valentina. Thankfully this time round she was one of 20 cast members of Puerto Rican descent. Maria, played by Rachel Zelger, and Bernardo, played by David Alvarez, were also captivating from their first scene to their last.

While we’re here, a dishonourable mention must go to Ansel Elgort. Thanks to his exaggerated lack of musicality, rhythm and emotion as the protagonist, he was the only part of the film that I strongly disliked. This was clouded further by the allegations of sexual-assault made against the actor back in 2020. Despite being the film’s main star, Elgort had a limited presence in the film's trailer and was only interviewed as part of a larger group of cast members. In terms of how it affected West Side Story's viewing experience, it was definitely something you had to compartmentalise in order to enjoy the film. In this sense, Spielberg’s West Side Story not only contributes to conversations about Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, but how the film industry is inevitably affected by the #MeToo movement and cancel culture.

Spiehlberg’s West Side Story (Source: Rolling Stone)

Given the timeless nature of the music and choreography that are at the backbone of the film - something proven by the adaptation’s ability to resonate with contemporary audiences - West Side Story was always going to be a successful production. Who in their right mind can honestly say that the adaptation’s rendition of “America” isn’t one for the musical history books? But there is also no denying that the basic tenets of the original production were grounded in racist stereotypes. We can finally thank 2021 - which, let’s face it, I never thought I’d say - for providing an inclusive vision of West Side Story that’s just as iconic as the film’s musical numbers; one that won’t induce a grimace when the ending credits roll.

My final verdict? Give it a watch and drink every time Elgort goes off-key. You’ll have a great evening and it will take the edge off those intrusive thoughts of the allegations made against him in real-life.

Words by Kirath Pahdi

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