Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story: Movie Review

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There was an understandable trepidation with the news that Steven Spielberg would be making a new version of West Side Story, the 1957 musical created by titans Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. “Why redo? Is a question that arises again and again in this climate of restarts and revivals. Sometimes the answer is “easy money grabbing”. In other cases, there is an artistic reason to revisit old material.

The Broadway production spawned the revered 1961 Oscar-winning film directed by Robert Wise which is full of disturbing examples of brownface and features two actors who couldn’t actually sing. What can a new West Side Story to bring? A better and more inclusive cast, yes, but Spielberg and his screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), set out to accomplish something more delicate. They wanted to rethink West Side Story for a modern moment, not by separating it from the past, but by invigorating it with context.

Spielberg has brilliantly devised new ways of staging classic acts, with his loyal cinematographer Janusz Kamiński bursting colors and Justin Peck’s choreography that is a tribute but not a devotion to the Robbins original. But it’s Kushner’s songbook that invites audiences to think about this classic in a new way. Maria (the luminous Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) are still a 20th century Romeo and Juliet, a Puerto Rican girl and a white boy whose allegiances are torn apart when they fall in love. But there is an extra depth to their stories that complements the cinematic splendor Spielberg can render like no other.

Previous update attempts West Side Story have given mixed results. A 2009 Broadway cover added lyrics in Spanish with help from Lin-Manuel Miranda. In 2020, experimental director Ivo Van Hove stripped it off, cut “I Feel Pretty” and removed all cultural context. Spielberg and Kushner used the opposite tactic. From the first moments, it is clear that employees want to place this West Side Story in the real world. While Wise’s original was filmed on the rubble that would become Lincoln Center, Spielberg and Kushner use the area shaving by developer Robert Moses, known as San Juan Hill, as a real plot point. . The Jets believe they are displaced by the Sharks, and the Sharks are about to be displaced by a sophisticated cultural center and skyscrapers for wealthy whites. (The fact that the film’s New York premiere was at Jazz at Lincoln Center, inside the sparkling Columbus Circle mall, looked like a dark joke on the inside.)

The opening ballet establishes a threat that was lacking in other interpretations. Extras jump off the sidewalks when they see the Jets strutting their way to vandalize a painting of a Puerto Rican flag. Jets frontman and Mercutio replacement Mike Faist’s Riff isn’t the cute rascal Russ Tamblyn made famous; instead, he seethes with disaffected anger, and Kushner dons the looming violence throughout the storyline. Our romantic hero, Tony (Ansel Elgort, the weakest link in the film, with a lovely voice and limp expression), is on parole after yet another almost deadly growl. His opponent, Bernardo (David Alvarez), is a boxer who uses his fists for a living. A gun doesn’t appear out of nowhere in the finale – it hovers over the plot with Chekhovian intent and serves as the conflict behind one of Spielberg’s most ingenious stagings, making “Cool” a hit. battle between Riff’s explosive ego and Tony’s desire to keep the peace.

While it is impossible to erase what Robbins and Wise did in 1961 given how their images became anchored in cultural memory, Spielberg and his team found ways to open up the universe of songs. Tony and Maria’s fake wedding number “One Hand, One Heart” finds them kneeling in front of a stained glass window at the Cloisters, where they are going on their first date, the light flooding their faces. “I Feel Pretty” is staged at the Gimbels department store, where Maria now works as a housekeeper. Anita (Ariana DeBose) releases her hymn “America” ​​to the street, where she turns in a vibrant yellow dress, accented with red, and dreams of the “penthouse” that will rise from the rubble.

DeBose has arguably had the toughest job of all of the cast, following Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning performance, the only one in the ’61 film with any authenticity. This Anita’s affection for her adopted country is more clearly defined, so the way she degrades herself is even more heartbreaking. When Maria and Bernado speak Spanish – and they often do so without being captioned, a choice that considers their language as central to the narrative as that of the Jets – Anita encourages them to use English. She believes in assimilation until she realizes it will never be offered to her, and DeBose makes her disillusionment raw. Likewise, the Maria de Zegler is new to America but hardly naive. She chases Tony during the dance at the gym more than he chases her, but is also more sensitive to the danger of their situation. Spielberg firmly holds Zegler’s expressive face as she surprisingly sings into Maria’s mighty soprano, her eyes expressing both hope and fear of what might come.

How to honor the past and recognize its mistakes? With thoughtfulness and competence and Rita Moreno. The 89-year-old now plays Valentina, a new role Kushner was considering to replace the curmudgeonly pharmacy owner Doc. Her space is neutral territory – because she married a gringo, the Jets accept it – but she herself isn’t. She understands the hatred that surrounds her but is encouraged by the insane feeling of love from Maria and Tony. It is his disappointment, conveyed through Bernstein’s most ardent ballad, “Somewhere”, that pierces the audience. It is the border between the past and the present. She is proof that this story deserves to be told over and over again.

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