IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 156 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
It’s the summer of 1957 in the San Juan Hill neighborhood on New York’s Upper West Side. The area is being demolished, but is still being fought over by two gangs; the white American Jets led by Riff, and the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo. After their latest skirmish, Riff proposes a rumble [fight between the two top men], but his friend and ex-Jet Tony, fresh out of prison for nearly killing a man, wishes to turn over a new leaf. Meanwhile Maria, Bernardo’s sister, is betrothed to Chino but yearns for independence. At a local dance, Tony and Maria instantly fall in love, angering Bernardo, who agrees to Riff’s terms for a rumble so long as Tony attends. But Tony doesn’t want to take part in any violence and only has eyes for Maria, but how can they be happy when surrounded by bitterness and hate….
Many of our newer readers may be wondering what we’re doing reviewing something like West Side Story, but older ones will no doubt remember the days when we did write-ups of a far wider range of films in cinemas. A combination of us being busier with screeners and also being busier in our lives had led to a narrower focus. But we do all like stuff that’s outside the main remit of the site, and I love musicals. The 1961 West Side Story is a film that was probably my favourite in the genre until a few years ago when I discovered the Jacques Demy twosome of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Young Girls Of Rochefort and totally fell in love at first sight. Steven Spielberg has also expressed his great liking for the Robert Wise [well, and Jerome Robbins] directed original version of the stage musical by Leonard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, and, just as with Peter Jackson and King Kong, one both wonders why he decided to do a new version considering both his feelings about the original and that said original is a stone cold classic. I’d imagine that many lovers of West Side Story will expect to hate this new incarnation, and may therefore not even bother to go and see it [ignoring Covid]. Yet within minutes it becomes clear that Spielberg has done something that I thought to be impossible – made a film which is the equal of its predecessor. In fact the person I saw it with considered it to be better, and she was lucky enough to see the original upon its original release and had therefore loved it for at least twenty years longer than me. I won’t go that far. For me, with every bit that was an improvement came something that doesn’t work as well, meaning that the ultimate version would probably be to combine aspects of both, but I’ll say this – if you were worried about this being a pointless act of sacrilege, as I came close to thinking, or just a pale shadow – don’t be.
Many of the best remakes achieve a delicate balancing act between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between giving us what we’ve already seen, and what we haven’t, or putting a fresh spin on familiar things. We love nostalgia and want to experience it when some of the things that made us love the original film are present, but we don’t want to see a carbon copy. Here, Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner have played with the script a little, but not too much. Virtually all the scenes we remember are present and correct, but are tweaked; dialogue has its different portions, and events are often staged differently, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. And the original’s aesthetic has been completely overhauled. That almost entirely took place on extremely sparsely populated studio sets which made little attempt to not look like studio sets, and that was not really a flaw – it was just a deliberate choice, along with the very stage-like lighting. It meant we were able to totally focus on the characters, but also meant that they seemed a bit divorced from their surroundings and things sometimes seemed a bit cramped. Here, it’s all real locations or sets that look like real locations, and at times the action even spills out into busy streets. The gang fighting is more like actual brawling and less like ballet – again, both approaches are valid, but the new one is probably better for a modern audience. And along with that, unfortunately, are some sops to wokeism. Anybodys can’t just be a tomboy, she has to be trans and also able to fight off both hoodlums and cops in a ludicrous scene that’s the film’s low point. The Jets fire fewer facial slurs which weakens the more realistic approach. And instead of Doc the store owner, we get Valentina the store owner.
The plot, of course, is essentially Romeo And Juliet updated. So it has to begin with the Jets and the Sharks engaging in what is probably a typical day for them. 1961 began with aerial shots of New York that home more and more in on the main locale; 2021 doesn’t try to top that but Spielberg’s far more small scale opening is also well executed and increases the absurdity of our gangs because we’re shown that the piece of land that they’re fighting over is not just so small that they could easily walk around it, but is surrounded by wreckage and is itself about to be destroyed to make way for the famous Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, low income housing being torn down in this way being nothing new. The Jets’ beef should be with the authorities, not the Sharks. The camera starts low, moves up to take in the environment before lowering again to show Riff emerging from a drain. He and his fellow Jets strut about causing minor trouble until a conflict with the Sharks happens. Before, we got a gradually escalating series of confrontations between the two gangs; here, the Jets also hassle others and the Sharks only play a part later. It’s a more expansive, elaborate sequence with at least one really good action moment, though the music here doesn’t always work quite as well. Having some different orchestration is fine, but what was once a thrilling cohesive piece is now rather disjointed. Officer Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank, the latter of whom exhibits a racist side in favouring the Jets, break up the fight, ask who drove a nail into Junior’s ear.
This is the world which ex-Jet Tony no longer wants a part of, though Riff wishes that he’d return to it. Riff is genuinely unpleasant, while the Jets all look dirty, poor and menacing. The Sharks look much cleaner and we’re told that they all have jobs too but one thing irritates with their scenes; the lapses into Spanish which aren’t subtitled. Spielberg has given a very wishy washy PC explanation for this, saying it would have ruined the purity of their language, but god damn it I wanted to hear what they were saying. But all is forgiven during the staging of the “America” number where Bernardo and Anita feud over life in New York compared to Puerto Rico, with Anita buying into the American dream over the pessimistic Bernardo. Instead of the gangsters and their girls being relegated to a rooftop, here the action covers a much wider area and goes onto a bustling high street as Anita and Bernardo weave and wind through their community which increases in scale until you get to the climax woth around 60 or 70 dancers in the center of an intersection with loads of extras round them and a few young kids having to wade through all this. This is really one of those scenes which remind us why we love musicals, because this is what we often love above all else; lots of people singing and dancing in an exhilarating orgy of movement and colour. Our couple fall for each other instantly during another dance across a crowded floor. Before, they met in the middle and for a few moments were lost in their own world; here, they see each other and then move to a quiet area on the side, a nice example of the less dreamy, more down to earth approach of this version. Offence is taken, and a rumble planned, leading to tragedy as Tony tries to break it up, which in turn leads to somebody being after his head.
The fateful rumble is now an intense, brutal brawl, while the finale is given more time to breath even if the different choice of song maybe doesn’t work so well. The stunning brilliance of the score which ranges from love ballads of exquisite purity to some of the exciting music ever written for the gang scenes still comes through with some different orchestration where sections of the orchestra often play what a whole orchestra played before, Some other songs are moved around with the odd lyric change, and sometimes this works better and somehow it doesn’t, but the order is now closer to that of the original stage version. Whereas “I Feel Pretty”, featuring Maria singing to her fellow shop workers, was previously a frivolous ditty about Maria feeling great about herself after her balcony scene with Tony, moving it back to much later just after the rumble makes it powerfully ironic, the happiness now taking on a darker tone because we’ve just seen these horrible events that these girls don’t know about yet. “Cool” is now earlier but in this case was probably better in the earlier film when it showed the gang so terribly edgy after the rumble. An 98-year old Rita Moreno, who played Anita in 1961, is given what is perhaps the most poignant number. Yes, one can get annoyed at how it’s not too believable that an elderly woman would run a drugstore in a rough neighbourhood, but when she sings “Somewhere” the result is heartbreaking. She utters the words in a low-key fashion while looking at a picture of her with her dead husband, who was white [and named Doc], which turns the song into more of a plea for racial harmony as well as reminding us of the passage of time when we cut to Maria and almost expect to see a young Moreno with her.
Many people’s main criticism of the 1961 version is the weakness of the central lovers. Such idealised romance can seem wet if there’s little chemistry between the leads, and Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood didn’t have much despite the luminosity of the divine Natalie Wood. Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler have a bit more, and are given some more naturalistic dialogue as well as a new scene that makes their relationship less rushed. They’re able do their own singing too, though Zegler way outdoes Elgort in terms of range. Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez disappear before memories of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, but Mike Fiest’s Riff makes Russ Tamblyn’s seem goofy. Choreography is slightly less graceful but given more room, while Spielberg cuts faster though never to the point of incomprehensibility. His usual cinematographer Janus Kaminski does his usual unappealing washed out look until we get to the Puerto Rican environment and lights from stained glass windows beautifully reflected on a chapel floor. The Jets wear a lot of blue and the Sharks brown, which leads me to something that my companion picked up on but which I didn’t; some mixing of the two colours later on, with Tony and Maria wearing some blue and brown at the same time. Even Valentina is seen in a blue dress, because she’d been married to a white man. It’s a good example of the care that’s been taken with this version. As I type, I’m still astonished but how good it is. Yes, there are things I miss, especially one simple dialogue exchange that speaks millions. Doc admonishes the boys and tells them, “You make the world lousy.” The reply is, “We didn’t make it, Doc.” But that’s bound to happen. We now live in a world that has two great West Side Story films, and that’s very surprising. Normally when I exit a cinema showing a remake I go straight home to watch the original. On this occasion, I wanted to see the remake again.