West Side Story

West Side Story, 2021, 3 stars

Recasting a classic

Spielberg invites a new generation to West Side

Exclusive to MeierMovies, December 10, 2021

Walt Disney said a song isn’t worth playing unless the audience leaves singing it. Thanks to iconic compositions from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story obviously doesn’t have to worry about that. Instead, the new version of the classic musical about star-crossed young lovers has the opposite issue: The audience will go in singing.

That’s both good and bad. Advance affection can be helpful, but love for a previous version, coupled with a feeling that the new edition might not be needed, can alienate an audience before the remake has a chance to prove itself.

That was especially true for this critic while attending a public advance screening of Steven Spielberg’s remake on Wednesday, because I had just revisited the 1961 Oscar-winning original on Monday. That getting-to-reknow-each-other had occurred, regrettably, in my living room via Blu-ray instead of at the recent Fathom Events theatrical re-release. That screening ended in disappointment just seconds into the film thanks to a faulty projector – a problem the managers of Regal Cinemas knew about well in advance yet chose to ignore, proving how little respect cinemas have for quality and how little interest the public has in experiencing classic films the way they were meant to be shown. Indeed, I was one of only three people in that crummy theater and the only one who seemed bothered enough to walk out. But I suppose that if more people cared about the classics, the market for remakes such as Spielberg’s would dry up.

Speaking of dry, I shed no tears at this reworking of the Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale, and that shocked me, considering my living-room ugly cry two days prior. I initially couldn’t explain my coldness but then realized that because the original was set and filmed almost contemporaneously (late 1950s and early 1960s), it was undeniably of its era. That version (directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) didn’t have to fake it. The spectacular helicopter shot over Manhattan that opened the film was real. And no amount of slick production design and CGI can reproduce that authenticity, that freshness, that magic – all in a primary-color 70mm palette. It matters little that much of what followed that helicopter shot was Hollywoodized. The film still reeks of its time. Spielberg might be a genius, but he’s no time-traveler.

Newcomer Rachel Zegler, whom Spielberg found in a casting call, is wonderful as Maria, but Ansel Elgort is just acceptable as Tony. He has moments of relatability but, like Richard Beymer in the 1961 original, is often wooden. His singing is superb, though, as is Zegler’s. (That’s one improvement over the original, which looped most of its actors with better singers.) Zegler might not have the screen presence of Natalie Wood, who played Maria in the original, but who does? Mike Faist, however, is just as effective as Russ Tamblyn, his Riff counterpart in the original film.


Ethnicity and inclusion?

Concerning Wood, it’s time to address the elephant in Lincoln Square: ethnicity. Spielberg has insisted on racially realistic casting, telling BBC Radio’s Talking Movies, “We wanted every single person who plays a Puerto Rican to be from the Latinx community, and that was a mandate from the get-go.”

Setting aside the term “Latinx,” – which Bill Maher famously said is used chiefly by “White pandering politicians” and not by the majority of Latino and Latina Americans – Spielberg has a point. But his point would be more valid if his film were hyper-realistic. Instead, it’s a musical. And his modern, in-your-face emphasis on Puerto Rican nationalism and immigrant rights – present in a more subtle degree in the original film – can occasionally make Spielberg’s version more like a social drama with songs than a musical, and a political statement than big-screen entertainment. Of course, West Side Story should be all that. That’s one of the things that made it groundbreaking. But Spielberg overreaches, even going so far as to pack in another social issue: gentrification.

Circling back to Wood, she was a daughter of immigrants. They were Russian, not Puerto Rican, but Zegler isn’t Puerto Rican either, having grown up in New Jersey, with Colombian and Polish blood. The irony of that latter ethnicity is startling considering the Sharks call Tony a “big, dumb Pollock.”

Rita Moreno (who won the Oscar for supporting actress for her wonderful performance as Maria’s best friend, Anita, in the original) is Puerto Rican, and it’s great to see her in the new version, in the expanded and rewritten role of Valentina, the drugstore owner and confidante of Tony. But Spielberg and writer and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner stumble twice with this character. First, during the attempted rape of Anita (Ariana DeBose, in a memorable performance), Valentina chases the Jets away. Thus, Spielberg pits female against male, Latina against White. In the original movie, Jewish drugstore owner Doc prevented the attack, thus proving that good men could stop bad men and fair-minded Caucasians could stop racist ones. By switching characters, Spielberg ruins the moment’s profundity.

The second error surrounding Anita is her singing the musical’s greatest song, “Somewhere.” In the 1961 film, Maria and Tony sang that tune together after the fatal rumble. It was, therefore, a wish that the world would someday set aside its prejudices and make room for two people who loved each other despite their differences. But when Moreno sings it in the remake, it becomes a longing for Puerto Rican acceptance. In this respect, the song is no longer a romantic, unifying moment but a potentially divisive one, at least in the eyes of the Jets and their supporters.

Interestingly, in the original Broadway production, an off-stage soprano sang the song, which was later reprised by the entire cast and also by Maria as Tony is dying. So perhaps Spielberg, who said he wanted to make his film truer to the stage version, reworked the song for that reason. Yet his film still omits the stage production’s “Somewhere Ballet,” as did the original film, and even denies Maria the chance to sing a few lines of the tune to Tony before he dies, a moment the 1961 film preserved from the Broadway show.

Even if you don’t buy the argument that the meaning of “Somewhere” is changed in Spielberg’s film, it’s difficult to deny that the song’s staging is contrived to give Moreno a solo. And that’s unfortunate considering Spielberg improves upon the original film’s staging on at least two songs, most notably the hilarious “Gee, Officer Krupke.” However, the new film’s pacing seems slower, which is astonishing considering Janusz Kamiński’s overwhelmingly dynamic cinematography. I suppose that when you feel as if you’ve seen most of it before, a certain amount of boredom is inevitable.

Returning to issues of inclusion, Kushner has rewritten the character of Anybodys, which is inspired by Romeo’s manservant, Balthasar. Instead of an old-fashioned tomboy, she is now a transgender male. I doubt many will have an issue with the representation, especially considering the character is played by Iris Menas, a non-binary actor. But doesn’t this alteration show a lack of respect to real-life girls like the original character, who was presumably proud to identify as a female and just wanted to be part of the Jets? (Welcome to Woke Side Story.)

Compliments, however, are due Spielberg and Kushner for the way they handle language. Though the original featured Spanish in snippets, this version includes a lot, and none is subtitled. Sometimes frustrating for this non-Spanish-speaker, it seemed well received by the largely Spanish-speaking crowd with whom I saw the film. I was reminded of the 1930s grifter jargon in The Sting. Though audiences didn’t understand a lot of that slang, we got the gist, and its presence buoyed the film’s integrity and realism. I don’t necessarily agree with Spielberg’s overbearing assertion that subtitling the Spanish would have shown disrespect to the language, but I still respect his intentions.

Taking these issues of ethnicity and culture to their illogical conclusion (and proving just how ridiculous they can often get when one lacks common sense), why is a 74-year-old White Jewish man helming this film? The answer, of course, is Spielberg is arguably cinema’s greatest living director, loves the musical (as did his father, apparently, judging by the “for Dad” dedication) and has the right to tell whatever story he wants, however he wants it. Sing it with me: “Freedom of speech in UH-MEH-REE-CUH!”

So visit West Side for the wonderful music sung and danced beautifully, Spielberg’s mastery of craft and the timeless story – thanks, Shakespeare! – while trying to ignore the bad decision-making and the fact that the film is less than the sum of its pretty parts. It’s quite simply the best unnecessary movie ever.

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For more information on the movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia