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Sunday, December 26, 2021

West Side Story


Steven Spielberg's energetic remake of West Side Story lacks the emotional punch of the original film, but for once, I think the problem is with me.  I am so familiar with the original source material, having seen both the earlier film and various stage productions, that the story has become somewhat overly familiar to me.  That matters little when everything else about the film is so sensational.  While I personally would rather have Tick, Tick...Boom over this, Spielberg's effort is still filled with moments of brilliance.  

Releasing sixty years after the Oscar-winning original film, this is a film that emphasizes what works about the source material without straying too far from tradition.  It actually has the feeling and is shot similar to an older Hollywood Musical, while at the same time, not relying on the earlier movie.  This feels like a new film from a different era of movie making.  And yet, you can see some of Spielberg's signature directing style throughout.  In a bold move, the film does not feature any big name stars, and few recognizable faces.  The draw is the familiar story and the director's name.  Judging by the film's take on the box office, that wasn't quite enough to draw in audiences, which is sad.  Even if the story is overly familiar to most audiences by now, it is still intimate and heartfelt in its own way, and its themes of racial bigotry still hit.

As always, the story is set in the late 1950s New York City, with a turf war brewing between two street gangs.  The white Jets gang are feuding with the Puerto Rican Sharks over territory, and the sense that the Jets feel the home they were born and raised in is being taken over by immigrants.  As the feud begins to quickly escalate toward violence, the story finds one of the Jets, a former juvenile delinquent named Tony (Ansel Elgort) who is trying to improve his life after serving a short prison sentence, falling in love with Maria (YouTube star Rachel Zegler, making a luminous screen debut), the sister of Sharks member Bernardo (David Alvarez).  The love that grows between Tony and Maria is looked down upon by both sides of the turf war, and inevitably in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, will lead to tragedy.

West Side Story has always been powered by its immortal musical score written by the legendary Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.  Sondheim sadly passed mere weeks before the film came out, but he gave his full support to the film while it was in production, and Spielberg has done pretty much nothing here that could be considered a major alteration to the 1957 Broadway smash.  Working with playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who has worked with Spielberg in the past on the films Munich and Lincoln), the film expands on some of the original text's ideas, or emphasizes certain character's backstories.  In another intriguing move, the film features a certain amount of dialogue in Spanish without subtitles, which makes sense during the scenes when we are within Maria's home, and she is among her family.  The emotion and the power of these scenes is still able to come through, even in a different language, and it only adds to the honesty of the picture.  

Spielberg has also cast his film with an amazing amount of talent who, again, are largely not well known to film audiences, but get to show what they can do in the film's numerous musical sequences.  Considering that the original film largely featured actors having their voices dubbed over for their singing, it again adds honesty and authenticity that everything up on the screen is coming directly from these talented young singers, actors, and dancers.  Spielberg's known love for sentimental storytelling works beautifully with the film's melodramatic love story, and while he lets the innocent love of his two star-crossed leads come through, he also does not shy away from the violence and hard-edged elements that are inherent in the original story.  He also handles the film's most famous musical numbers and sequences with expert skill, and in a wonderful touch, gives one of the film's original stars (Rita Moreno) a warm and memorable role as an elderly mentor to Tony.  


I think the familiar tone of West Side Story is intentional.  Spielberg was not trying to create a new vision of the story, but create his own vision on a classic.  He has succeeded so much so, this is one of the few times I hope that a film remake will be held up to the original in the years to come.  He trusts the material he's been given, and simply gives it to his audience straight, while adding his own style and subtext in subtle ways.  For a purist, that's probably the highest complement anyone could give.

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