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West Side Story (2021)

"You let them take me from you. How do I forgive you for that?"

There are some things that simply should not be remade. Madonna singing "American Pie?" The remake of Psycho? A reboot of Magnum PI? No, no, and again I say, no. You can guess what my reaction was when I heard that Steven Spielberg had chosen to remake one of the most revered movies of all time.

If we are going to be completely honest about the original, it did have its faults. But, it is difficult to imagine improving upon the holy trinity of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Imagine no longer – Spielberg did it.

This movie is magnificent, very nearly perfect, and believe it or not, an improvement on the original. Working closely with the screenwriter Tony Kushner and the choreographer Justin Peck, Spielberg has crafted a film that simultaneously pays tribute to that which came before while taking the story into different levels and depths than were ever imagined in the past.

From the beginning, Spielberg makes us aware that this is a story grounded in reality. He retains the late 1950s date of the film, but sets it in what is now midtown Manhattan. In the mid-1950's, that part of the island that is now Lincoln Center was slums, inhabited by Puerto Ricans and African Americans. They lived west of Amsterdam Avenue; the white families who had lived in the city for much longer lived to the east. Gang warfare was common as each racial group blamed the other for its troubles.

In the late 1950s, Robert Moses decided to clear these slums to build Lincoln Center, displacing thousands of families and businesses. Spielberg sets his movie as the buildings are coming down. It is a bleak and depressing landscape and the sense of us against them is palpable as soon as the movie kicks off.

To emphasize this divide, Kushner and Spielberg make a very interesting choice. Throughout the movie, the Puerto Rican characters often speak Spanish, but the movie does not provide subtitles. At first I was a bit taken aback, but then I realized just how well this moved the story forward. The white characters in the movie are constantly telling the Spanish characters to speak English, usually not very politely. By continuing to speak Spanish at these times, the divide is only increased and we, at least those of us whose Spanish is weak, become part of it.

In the middle of all this violence and hatred, Tony and Maria meet and fall in love. Ansel Elgort is a wonderful Tony, handsome with a hint of violence that he is doing whatever he can to overcome. Rachel Zegler, in her first professional role, manages to make Maria young and innocent, yet smart enough to understand better than anyone around her what is happening and what the risks are. Unlike the film that came before, these two can sing and dance. In addition, their chemistry is electric. As you watch their eyes meet across the dance floor for the first time, you can feel the energy between them. As their story continues and they share their scenes together, it is easy to root for them and to believe in them.

Interestingly, similar to the older movie, the best performances are from the supporting players. Ariana DeBose who plays Anita gives the role a nuance and intelligence that shines. The best of the best, however, is Mike Faist who plays Riff. He imbues that character with anger tinged with a sadness that comes through as he is singing and dancing. Amazing.

Spielberg makes two changes to the cast that I found improved the movie significantly. Anybodys, in the original play and movie, is a tomboy. Here, he is trans and he is mocked by both gangs for being so, not to mention beaten constantly. The character is played by Ezra Menas who is nonbinary and who is able to show us the pain that the character lives with, both physical and emotional.

The second is the character of Doc who has been replaced by Valentina, played by Rita Moreno (who was Anita in the original). She (a Puerto Rican) was married to Doc (a white man) for many years until he passed away shortly before this film opens. That decision changes the dynamics between the owner of the drug store and the white kids who hang out there significantly. It brought a depth to some of the scenes, especially the scene where Anita is attacked, to a whole new level.

One watches a musical, however, for the singing and the dancing. Justin Peck did a magnificent job retaining some of Robbins' iconic moments (the finger snaps are still there) while managing to update some of the dances so that they simply swirl with color and movement. The scene at the dance and the scene while the cast sings “America” are show stoppers. See them on the large screen if at all possible.

The songs are the ones we know and love. They sometimes occur at different points in the story, but each time it works. The most shattering moment of the film occurs during a song. “Somewhere” is sung by someone other than Maria who delivers it with such pathos and such heartbreak that I found myself crying.

The original movie has never made me cry. This version is touching; it is funny; it is beautiful. I loved it.

ChrisB loves a great musical but has to struggle not to sing along.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this review, Chris. I can't wait to see this movie.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I watched the ads for this and thought, "Well, at least they didn't try to pass a Slav off as a Puerto Rican this time." Then I looked up Rachel Zegler and found out she was half Polish! A weird form of typecasting? :oD

    ReplyDelete

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