Film & TV

Review: West Side Story (2021)

Credits: Disney

By Zainab Javed

Issues of gentrification, class, race, love, family, and violence interwoven with glorious dance and song routines – it might seem a lot for one film to accommodate, yet Steven Spielberg, alongside screenwriter Tony Kushner and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, in his revision of West Side Story, manages to pull this incredible feat. The 74-year-old director masterfully weaves the myriad of threads together into a euphoric, riveting tale that stands the test of time. It soars the highest of heights but, at the same time, never loses sight of the larger truth of the grim reality of American history, which it so unapologetically explores.

The story is not new at all, in fact, it is as old as time. Sixty years ago, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins transported Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical from stage to the screen, creating the spectacular West Side Story. It even won ten Oscars out of its eleven nominations. Incredible, isn’t it? Opening with the eerie, familiar-sounding whistle lifted straight up from Wise’s version, the first thing we see isn’t the spectacularly immaculate view of the New York skyline. Instead, the gorgeous Manhattan that we have so often come to romanticize is transposed to a demolition site. The focus then moves to the Jets – a gang composed of unemployed, impoverished Caucasians, as they fight for territory they claim is theirs. On the other side are the Sharks, a group of Puerto Rican immigrants living on the American East Coast as legal citizens. The Jets are led by Riff and the Sharks by Bernardo. While the gang war between them plays out as it has several times before, this time, however, the real fight is against the city and its rampant need to gentrify. And as Spielberg’s New York falls apart, a love story germinates in the dust. At the centre of this action stand Ansel Elgort as Tony, Riff’s oldest friend, and debutant Rachel Zegler as Maria, Bernardo’s eighteen-year-old sister, as the star-crossed lovers who fall in love despite all odds. We know that this could never work out, but until it lasts their romance is dazzling.

Tony and Maria meet at a dance. Their eyes lock and they move towards each other as if guided by some mystical gravitational pull. In stark contrast to the previous version, Kushner’s screenplay affords Maria some agency. She is self-assertive as even though Tony sees her first, she is the one to lean in for a kiss. She knows what she wants, and Zegler delivers a strong and confident performance as the seemingly dainty but resolute Maria. But it is Ariana DeBose as the dynamic Anita who remains the highlight of the show, capturing our attention in every frame she occupies. She is sexy, strong and the voice of reason in Bernardo and Maria’s lives. She dances with verve and exuberance as she leads the incredible ‘America’ dance number. Staged as a dance-off, Anita galivants through the streets of New York as Bernardo tries to convince her how the American system is rigged to constantly keep them oppressed. Yet, with stars in her eyes, she is hopeful to rise from her lowly job to live the American Dream. DeBose is not only great on the dance floor but she is also put through an extremely harrowing sexual assault sequence, which she carries off with an incredible amount of strength and conviction.

West Side Story questions us. It asks us to consider who is an outsider and what could be characterized as home. It tells us that America is still great (through its form of the American musical), but it is also a reminder of how far the progenies of European settlers would go to establish supremacy. Spielberg artfully overrules this supremacy. The film proliferates with Spanish dialogues, and they do not get any subtitles, establishing that it is our shortcoming that we do not know the language.

In a year which much like the last was defined by the threat of Covid-19, West Side Story transported me to a different time. Watching the film, I reminisced of a far simpler time where I would stand for hours in front of the mirror, dancing to ‘I Feel Pretty’. It made me fall in love with the American musical genre again which constituted a large part of my childhood and, after the past eighteen months we have all had, I felt privileged to have experienced Spielberg’s vision on the big screen.