20th century studios
Many of us had doubts when we learned that Steven Spielberg was going to be directing a new version of West Side Story, and not just because of the fatigue of the Hollywood remakes. In the decades since his first Broadway appearance in 1957, the Romeo and Juliet-The inspired story of two warring New York street gangs has drawn more than its fair share of criticism, especially over the writing and casting of its Puerto Rican characters. Even the beloved 1961 film now inspires moans for choosing Natalie Wood as the lead role of María and for forcing Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the cast, to wear dark brown makeup as Anita.
Sixty years later, Moreno is executive producer on Spielberg’s West Side Story. She also gives a poignant performance in the new role of Valentina, the widow of Doc, the owner of the pharmacy. Through his presence, Moreno teaches us to approach this film, both as a loving tribute and a gentle corrective.
Spielberg and his usual screenwriter of late, playwright Tony Kushner, give us a harsher, darker take on the Upper West Side in the 1950s. We see the working-class neighborhood of San Juan Hill, home to mostly black residents. and Latinos, being demolished to make way for new developments like Lincoln Center. There is a heightened sense of hostility between the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks and their white rivals, the Jets, and their growls are surprisingly violent.
Realism is added to the fact that the Sharks are played by actors of Latino descent. They include David Alvarez as Bernardo, the fiery leader of the Sharks, and Ariana DeBose as his girlfriend, Anita. Both actors look stunning, as is Rachel Zegler, who is making her big screen debut as Bernardo’s little sister, María.
The story has not changed: María falls into an unhappy love affair with Tony, a former member of the Jets, played by Ansel Elgort. At the start of the film, the two meet surreptitiously on María’s fire escape, singing “Tonight”, one of Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim’s many classic songs gloriously featured in the film.
What’s remarkable about this and the others is how brilliantly Spielberg directs them. West Side Story is the first musical he has ever created, but it’s no surprise that it’s natural: few other American filmmakers have a more instinctive sense of rhythm and visual flow, or more direct access to your emotions.
Spielberg stages the numbers like an old-school Hollywood classic, without any overly edgy editing that might distract from the dance. When the Jets and Sharks meet at a school ball, their confrontational temperaments and bodies pull you in with almost physical force. And when Anita and Bernardo sing “America”, their catchy song about the pleasures and dangers of assimilation, the scene changes from a domestic feud to a joyous street party, which Spielberg turns in a whirlwind of color and color. movements.
Tony-winning choreographer Justin Peck weaves in some clever variations on Jerome Robbins’ original dance moves, whether it’s the Jets wreaking havoc in a police station during their big comic book number, “Gee, Officer Krupke, ”or Tony and his friends throwing around a gun during a tense rendition of the song“ Cool ”.
Speaking of Tony’s Friends: As Riff, the head of the Jets, Mike Faist gives one of the film’s most notable performances. The weakest link in the cast is Elgort: he can sing and dance, but there’s an emotional platitude to his playing that doesn’t quite fit with the much livelier Zegler.
Spielberg can’t fix everything squeaky and dated West Side Story as text. But he knows the show still has something resonant to say about racism and violence in all eras, including our own. The reason the film works so well is, I think, a curious paradox: West Side Story may be grainy and more realistic than the original movie, but it also feels more exciting than anything a Hollywood studio has released in ages.
In the end, I wasn’t so moved by Tony and María’s sweet and somewhat dripping romance or the fatalistic drama between the Jets and Sharks. I was moved by Spielberg’s conviction, his absolute faith in the transport power of films. For two and a half hours he makes you believe again.