There are two huge questions that cast a shadow over the new West Side Story: Why mess with perfection? And more than that, how?
When it was announced that Steven Spielberg would make a new version of the classic, with Tony Kushner adapting the script, the project was immediately haunted. The ghost of a masterpiece threw a pallet over the endeavor. There is valid, necessary critique of 1961 West Side Story movie. But my God, it holds up as close to flawless a film musical – a piece of cinema, period – as it comes.
That shadow only grows when one thinks of the intimate, unbreakable connection that people have made with that film in the 60 years since its release. Roots in what it has meant for families, for cultures, for artists, for music lovers, for choreography enthusiasts – for anyone who loves great movies – have become entangled in our hearts in ways that could never be resolved. And here, in 2021, two white guys, of all people, will try to surpass to?
That’s where Spielberg is West Side Story, coming to theaters December 10, works. “Works” is an undersell. It hovers. There are no marching orders to surpass or even reinvent.
This West Side Story is faithful and well-known – a tribute. There are performances in it that explode from the screen, actors do justice to some of the best characters and songs ever written, and then some. There is an escalation of emotions in the second half of the film that builds relentlessly, at once flooding the audience but also spawning them, giving them the enchanting air they need to breathe while being completely overcome.
Remarkable changes have been made throughout, all in the name of improvement, and nothing blasphemous. Raise your eyebrows over this first and most monumental, well-funded, marketed-to-the-moon remake of West Side Story is not controlled or adapted by anyone of Latin or Latin American descent – and keep it there. But throw the other shadows and ghosts aside. The movie is spectacular, because it is, of course.
This is that Spielberg finally marks himself in a genre he has borrowed from over the course of his career. But he has also gathered enough other tools to climb the film musical mountain top and deservedly plant his flag in it. This is Kushner, the greatest playwright of our time and a masterful screenwriter. And this is West Side Story, presented with great care and ambition, but also untouched. The ride is so rewarding because it gives a little turbulence on the runway; you know what you are getting and the quality is good.
There will be a nagging “well, so what was the point of it all?” that follows the film. There may not be anything apostate here, or an artistic reinterpretation that tickles the bear.
But there is an even stronger counterplay: One of the greatest musicals of our time, put on the screen by one of the greatest directors of our time, enhanced with the insight of the aforementioned masterful author, all filmed with the best in modern camera technology and effects, and executed with the youthful energy of a new generation that has had their lifetime to absorb the importance of material that has been soaked by decades of resonance in American culture.
One can say, perhaps unequivocally, that there is a meaning to all that.
This is where it is imperative to pump the breaks. Forget the questions of why or how you mess with perfection. After seeing the new West Side Story, the relevant could be: Can you recreate perfection? That answer is a resounding no.
The film starts slowly. Very slow. So slow that you are forgiven for looking with a grimace, worried that this whole Spielberg experiment was a huge mistake. There is added exposure, indulgent establishing shots and then the material itself, a sluggish opening that worsens here. But almost like a jolt, there is a turning point and it all rises beautifully and never gives up. Well, almost never give up.
First this: Would you think that casting top-tier musical theater actors whose singing and dancing talents are unparalleled in the entertainment world – because, you know, they’ve trained their whole lives to be so good– would deliver some of the finest film-musical performances of recent times?
This is not a hard and fast rule. But the star casting of today has worked (Andrew Garfield in Tik, Tik … Bom! is a good example of the latter) has been surpassed by the tower of big roles and big musicals that have been tainted by A-list stars employed despite the fact that they can barely keep a tune.
Ariana DeBose is a force like Anita. It’s not just because, when she’s done with “America,” her cyclone of vitality threatens to tear down the rafters, leaving nothing but stunned debris in the wake. It is that the humanity she brings to the role is just as potent and just as crazy. As a series of “unthinkable” happen that fall like dominoes, each of which gets bruised, and what she knows about her life harder and deeper, she becomes a vessel of seismic activity. The feeling shakes out of her – have there been more expressive eyes on the screen? – until it shakes you too.
You might not expect it, but the Anita and Maria duet “I Boy Like That / I Have a Love” is the highlight of the film, indicating the value of focusing on emotions rather than acting. This is due to DeBose’s titanic performance, but also to the amazing work of Rachel Zegler as Maria in her film debut. Her crystalline soprano is one thing; her screen presence is supernatural. Every look – puppy eyes on Tony, desperate on Anita, remorse for the catastrophe of the climax – radiates as if the life force of the whole space is summoned as individual lusts, energy that manifests itself as an extra spotlight on her in every image.
“Every look – puppy eyes on Tony, desperate on Anita, remorse for the catastrophe of the climax – radiates as if the life force of the whole space is summoned as individual lusts, energy that manifests itself as an extra spotlight on her in every image.”
Mike Faist is a revelation like Riff that elevates the role to a more central character than it has ever been, just as David Alvarez’s tender machismo and ferocious dance make you see Bernardo in a new light. The size of the talent in the lead roles, all of which are mostly unknown in Hollywood, makes Ansel Elgort’s sad charismatic performance as Tony even more conspicuous – and unforgivable.
Yes, West Side Story has always had a Tony problem. He has always been a blank slate. A bit of a drip. But between Elgort’s eerie attempts at a New Yawk accent and dizziness and the fact that he, especially against Zegler, becomes this black hole of charm, it’s all the more confusing that a movie star was coveted for this role – and that it would be Hi M.
This is a movie made by people who care about what their movie looks like, which should not seem like an achievement or even something that has been missing – until you see it in West Side Story. There is not a frame of it that could not be frozen to hang on your wall like a work of art. However, not all works of art fall in everyone’s taste.
For every lush, mesmerizing live dance sequence, the dancers ‘technicolor dresses are dazzling, while Sharks and Jets’ youthful athletics enchant, the supersaturation of light that serves the film well to conjure up nostalgia can just as often be registered as dull or flat. And worse – especially in the case of Tony and Maria’s courtship scenes – seems banal.
But you would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks the bad outweighs the magnificent here.
“There is not a frame of it that could not be frozen to hang on your wall like a work of art. However, not all works of art fall in everyone’s taste.”
Kushner’s delicate adaptation of the source material both shades it with nuances and intensifies its themes and urgency. Notes on racism that have been criticized and rejected over the years have been corrected. But the racial tension that is at the root of the work’s conflict – it is historical and inevitable, which resonates now as a generational trauma that has been shaken, plucked in and softened again with a grotesque cyclical fervor – is clarified.
More than that, it is bored into the matter, painfully screwed into the foundation of the material, until the truth about racial tension is the only piece that is certain, in this epic of refreshing dance numbers, dizzying ballads and star-crossed love. In this version of West Side Story, you can not look away from it.
There is obvious power in that. But also, after all these years since the original stage version or the film from 1961 – not to mention the countless productions that have been staged all over the world in the 60 years ago – there is surprise. Incredible surprise, even when you think about the hours we have all spent sunbathing in and thinking about this work. West Side Story has been considered a romance, a tragedy, a cultural record, a freezing frame in time, a commentary on America, a warning narrative.
It’s the first time you see this story – this portrait of a neighborhood in a seismic transition point, this forbidden courtship between Tony and Maria, this unscrupulous violence – and see it for what it really is: an inevitability.
This is a movie that takes place in the 50’s and there is not a single minute of interaction between these characters and cultures that does not remind you of it. That is what makes its modern resonance even more painful and, hopefully, even after such a long time with this material, provocative.
Not just purists of West Side Story will leave their views and, after wiping their eyes, they gossiped breathlessly about the adjustments, changes and, let’s face it, corrections that have been made. These are all the people for whom these songs, characters and choreography are woven into their hearts and memories.
Some are crucial: The decision to swap the Doc character with her widow and then cast Rita Moreno in the role is an ingenious narrative touch. Yes, it’s deep to see the Oscar winner in the new version of the film that made her a star, but it continues Kushner’s mission to deepen the material.
It does not matter whether you can suspend disbelief or not and let your mind stop running over how gripping Moreno’s presence in the film is. Her character’s beautiful, bittersweet arch is a generational bridge. She carries the scars of the past. She may have empathy with the powder keg of frustration the kids feel, but she also knows what will happen if they light the fuse.
Under all the kinetic energy of West Side Story is an undercurrent of grief, something Valentina survives, endures and fears – the latter because of what is to come from the culture, of these young people, of future generations, if nothing is to change.
We see her standing in an amazing tableau in the most devastating moment of the film, arm in arm with a young man who is about to accept his punishment. Suddenly we are snapped back to reality where we see this from in 2021. It is not his punishment. Maybe that’s his fate.
There are other changes that may seem big to some people, or that go unnoticed by others. “America” has been rebuilt so it’s a living, breathing number in the streets of New York City. How to make the typical film musical production number even more dynamic than it already was? Spielberg takes up the challenge.
Maybe that’s the nuance here. The challenge may not have been to copy perfection or to reinvent a classic. Maybe it was to make it feel alive again. Not new in itself, but renewed. This is where it’s West Side Story is a triumph. Mambo!