Film Review: Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’

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Puerto Ricans have a long, thorny relationship with West Side Story, especially the 1961 film version of Arthur Laurents’, Stephen Sondheim’s, Leonard Bernstein’s and Jerome Robbins’ musical directed by Robert Wise and featuring a cast of mostly non-Latino actors, led by Natalie Wood, all wearing brownface—and for which Rita Moreno won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Anita.

West Side Story was the first major Broadway and Hollywood production to feature Puerto Ricans as characters, and so the image of them as dancing, knife-wielding gangbangers has been perpetuated worldwide for more than six decades, no matter how many other films—most of them independent productions such as I Like It Like That (1994) also featuring Moreno, and Piñero (2001), León Ichaso’s biopic about Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero—TV series, novels, and even musicians have tried to dispel that stereotype. By turning the original Romeo and Juliet-inspired romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl into a story about a white gang at war with a Puerto Rican one without doing any due diligence about Puerto Rican culture and history, and in their desire to turn a musical into a more socially aware tool, the authors ended up doing more harm than good.

I saw the original West Side Story for the first time sophomore year of college and walked out after 15 minutes; the fake accents and the brown faces were more than I could take. The more I found out and read about the history of the different Puerto Rican communities in the United States, about their struggles, their triumphs, and their contributions, the more I disliked West Side Story. When Spielberg announced he would direct a new film version of the musical scripted by his longtime collaborator, playwright Tony Kushner, I asked why? Did we really need another version of this musical? After all, there had already been several Broadway revivals—including one featuring Spanish-language lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. How would Spielberg and Kushner shape this material? How would we be portrayed? Spielberg vowed he would cast Latino actors, especially Puerto Rican and Nuyorican actors. He, Kushner, and their production team visited the island and, besides auditioning actors, met with a group of students and professors from the University of Puerto Rico, a gathering that didn’t go that well at first.

So, let’s say that I was a bit skeptical about it and even had doubts about seeing it, even while the power of Spielberg compelled me.

When the first trailer was released, one image immediately made me jump and take notice: a mural featuring an image of Puerto Rican nationalist and independence icon Pedro Albizu Campos and his most celebrated quote: “La patria es valor y sacrificio” (The fatherland is courage and sacrifice). How would the mural be used in the film? Did this mean that Spielberg and Kushner would, given the limits and impositions of the original libretto, actually provide some context as to why Puerto Ricans migrated to and established a community in New York City? Let us not forget that the musical takes place in the ’50s, at the height of the Puerto Rican government’s strategy to modernize the island’s economy known as Operation Bootstrap, their use of emigration as an escape valve, after the Nationalist uprising of 1950, and the 1954 Nationalist attack in Congress. 

Well, not quite. But, they have reinvented and updated the original play and film while staying true to its spirit. They have not only done justice to our history—without turning the film into a history lesson—our culture and who we are, but have also placed front and center the forces that drove two ethnic working-class groups to fight each other for a piece of land. This version of West Side Story is as much about the insidious effects of gentrification on the inner city as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In The Heights.

David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ ‘West Side Story’


What was once a backdrop is now pushed to the foreground as Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s roving camera crane over the ruins of housing tenements recently demolished to make way for the newest playground for the rich: the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The Jets emerge from these ruins, cans of paint in hand, as the prologue kicks in followed by “Jet Song.” Led by Riff (an extraordinary Mike Faist, in a role that calls for him to act macho, full of braggadocio, while hinting at a deep vulnerability), the Jets walk towards a park on the Puerto Rican side of the San Juan Hill neighborhood where the Albizu mural stands next to that of the Puerto Rican flag. As the Jets begin to deface the Puerto Rican flag, a rumble breaks out between them and the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang led by boxer Bernardo (David Álvarez), which ends in an empty lot. As the police split both groups apart, Bernardo lifts his left fist and, with some of his gang mates, begins to sing the island’s hymn “La Borinqueña”—-not the version we were taught in school but the militant one written by Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió in 1868 during Puerto Rico’s fight for independence against Spain, the one which was banned by the Puerto Rican government for decades. The prologue ends with Bernardo yelling, “¡VIVA PUERTO RICO LIBRE!” And that is just the first 10 minutes.

All of the Spanish-language dialogue, especially the scenes in María’s (Rachel Zegler) and Anita’s (Ariana DeBose) kitchen, where they bicker and argue with Maria’s brother Bernardo, are unsubtitled—Spielberg said he didn’t want to give English any power over Spanish—forcing audiences to pay attention not to what is being said but how it is being said—the cadences, the rhythm of spoken words—turning these scenes into musical numbers of their own. The dialogue not only sounds authentic, it is; after all, Kushner relied on the advice of academics, cast members, and even musicians to guarantee the film’s Puertoricanness. 

Spielberg and Kushner may be faithful to West Side Story’s core storyline of former Jets member Tony’s (Ansel Egort) romance with María, which ends tragically after he kills Bernardo in a rumble between both gangs he at first tried to put a stop to, but this version of the Lower West Side feels more lived in, more street-savvy than the 1961 version, even if Kaminski’s photography at times evokes the Hollywood musicals of yesteryear in its most intimate moments.

Scene from 20th Century Studios’ ‘West Side Story’

Take, for example, how Spielberg and choreographer Justin Beck have staged “America.” As in the original, the piece does begin on the roof of the building where Anita and María live, but it’s not bound by it. Instead, the camera follows Anita, Bernardo, and a group of dancers as they make their way through clotheslines hanging in bedrooms, bathrooms, and laundry rooms, down to the street full of stores with Spanish-language signs where the entire community joins in. DeBose and Alvarez transform the song’s venomous and spiteful lyrics into an at times playful debate about assimilation and staying true to your roots and country, a debate that will come full circle towards the end when, after being rescued from an attempted rape, Anita spits out to the Jets, in Spanish: “Yo no soy Americana, yo soy puertorriqueña.”—words which have an extra charge in this new version, coming from an Afro-Boricua actress and given the recent debates about colorism in Latin America and the Latino communities in the United States.

“Gee, Officer Krupke” is a particular stand-out in its use of space (the interior of a police precinct), choreography, and comedic timing. It’s far more sardonic than the version we are most familiar with, pointing out to the failures of a social and legal system originally designed to help the youth and ends up doing anything but, while underlining the sense of entitlement and privilege these young white men feel. And by restaging “I Feel Pretty” inside a department store where María works as a cleaning lady all dressed in pink, the song goes from representing the last one happy moment for her before her world falls apart, to an aspirational one about self-worth. 

But the most important change, one that ties together everything the director and scriptwriter are trying to accomplish, is the replacement of Doc, the owner of the drug store-soda shop that is neutral territory for both gangs, with a new character: his widow Valentina, played by Rita Moreno as both a mother figure and a woman whose dignity in the face of forces far more powerful than hers—her store seems to keep the developers at bay since it’s located right at the border where the development begins—cannot be denied. Once sung by Tony and María, “Somewhere” is now performed by Valentina as a poignant reminder that actions have consequences and that, no matter what, “there is a place for us” working-class folks, whether star-crossed lovers or hot-headed young men and women who don’t realize that we are all, regardless of race, being victimized by those powerful forces.

Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios’ ‘West Side Story’

Yes, I would have liked to have seen a Puerto Rican actress cast as María, but Zegler brings such a wonderful, even touching mix of sweetness, naivete, and toughness to the role that you can’t help but fall for her and her teenage illusions and dreams. The fact that Bernstein’s score lacks any Puerto Rican or Latino touches—outside of the two gangs and their belles screaming “MAMBO!” at a high school dance and the use of castanets in “I Feel Pretty”—when the ’50s was the era of the mambo wars at the Palladium between the two Titos, Puente and Rodríguez, and Puerto Rican composers like Rafael Hernández had written their greatest hits in New York in the ’30s and ’40s, is one of the musical’s weakest links, even while Bernstein claims to have met with Puerto Rican musicians. Not to mention how easily María forgives Tony for killing her brother.

But even with these caveats, for my money, this version of West Side Story is far more definitive and richer than the 1961 version that has long haunted Puerto Ricans across the globe.

West Side Story opens theatrically on December 10.


Featured image: Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in ‘West Side Story’ (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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