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West Side Story (2021) •••••

Movie Greg Scott
West Side Story (2021)


West Side Story (2021)

West Side Story (2021)

Scott, it looks like Spielberg and you have something in common – you’re both looking for projects to fill your time in retirement.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I wish he and I had his bank account in common. Let’s review West Side Story, shall we?

We meet a group of youths from the West Side of New York City named the Jets. They are running around creating havoc and bump into another group of young men named the Sharks. There is an immediate animosity as the Sharks are from Puerto Rico and the Jets are descendants of western European immigrants.

The two gangs threaten to “rumble”, the slang term for fight. Officer Krupke warns them not to, which means you know they will. Riff, the leader of the Jets, tries to convince former Jet member Tony to join them in the rumble, but Tony is more interested in keeping the peace and falling in love with Maria. Turns out that Maria is the brother of Bernardo, the CEO of the Sharks. Tragedy ensues.

Scott, I don’t think we can review Spielberg’s version of West Side Story without first understanding its history. It’s based on a 1957 Broadway play that was conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and playwright Arthur Laurents as a commentary on Jewish / Catholic conflict of the 1950s. Due to unrest in Latin neighborhoods, they changed the narrative to White on Puerto Rican conflict. Unfortunately, none of the men knew anyone who were Puerto Rican or had any background on Puerto Rican culture.

The story is a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with a White gang called the Jets representing the Capulets and the Puerto Rican gang named the Sharks representing the Montagues.

The play was a smash and in 1961 it was recreated as a Hollywood movie with Robbins directing the dance numbers and Robert Wise the dramatic scenes. Robbins burned up all the film’s original budget and twice its shooting time on the dancing and Wise was brought in as he had a reputation for finishing projects on time and under budget. The men collaborated to create the now iconic and much loved work of art we know today.

What finally came to screen was a story that was very skewed toward the White Sharks. The Puerto Ricans were played largely by White actors in brown face. Even Rita Moreno (playing her Oscar-winning role of Anita), a native of Puerto Rico, was forced to wear dark brown makeup so that all the Sharks looked the same shade (despite the fact that Puerto Rico is racially diverse). The show-stopping song “America” had cast members calling out Puerto Rico as an “ugly Island of tropic diseases,” and that it should “sink back in the ocean.”

Bernstein and Laurents’ immigrant experience was that of people fleeing a country they despised for the greener shores of America. And their songwriting and script expose that bias. However, Puerto Ricans generally did not come to the mainland because they hated Puerto Rico. On the contrary, they left a country they loved to escape poverty and aggression. Due to these facts, West Side Story (1961) spends easily twice its time on the Jets with little backstory on the Puerto Rican Sharks, making for a heavily White-biased story.

Greg, you’re right that the history of this story is important in understanding and appreciating this 2021 Spielberg version. It’s also obvious that this plot represents a modern Shakespearean tragedy. The Bard’s fingerprints are all over the place. We have a tragic hero in Tony, the dichotomy of good and evil, the tragic and unnecessary waste of human life, the hero’s tragic flaw, issues of fate or fortune, greed, foul revenge, and an ending that is full of despair yet hints at hope. As the audience, we can see the train wreck coming from the get-go yet there’s really nothing that can be done to stop it.

For me, the story serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of poverty, tribalism, and the interaction between the two. The film opens with the “slums” of New York’s west side being converted into more upscale apartments. This is based on the truth – the poverty stricken west side of Central Park in the 1950s was in fact torn down to make room for the Lincoln Center and the swanky neighborhood surrounding it. Poverty instilled a sense of hopelessness in the community’s young residents. It also magnified everyone’s tribal instincts, as now both sides had the other side to blame for their plight.

Many elements of West Side Story are of course far-fetched. For one thing (and I say this tongue in cheek) there is the absurdity of gangs who sing and dance. Also, as in Romeo and Juliet, there is the silliness of “love at first sight” (We all know that it is “lust at first sight”). In addition, we have Maria’s instant forgiveness of Tony, and enduring love for him, even after learning that he killed her brother. That’s highly unlikely. Finally, we have the improbable ending wherein the rival gangs band together in solidarity to honor Tony. We all know that in real life, all that bad blood between the gangs will be ramped up more than ever.

Looking back on West Side Story (1961), comparing it to modern times and a growing awareness of cultural diversity in the United States, these themes about Puerto Rican immigrants don’t play so well. In fact, many Puerto Ricans feel that the negative portrayal of Latinx folks in general, and Puerto Ricans in particular, have hurt them more than it’s helped.

In 2014 Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner decided to remake West Side Story with a more culturally complete cast and a presentation that would sit better with contemporary values. The pair did a great deal of research including traveling to the University of Puerto Rico and meeting with historians and student advisors there. They also upgraded the stakes to include gentrification and police confrontation.

What emerged from this effort is a West Side Story that is unquestionably one of the finest film adaptations in history. And how could it not be? Robert Wise’s film was shot on a shoestring budget under extreme time pressure, with a director in the middle of his career. If you give a project the best director in the world, at the apex of his career, with the all the resources he could ask for, his pick of a cast and crew, and all the time he could require – you’d expect nothing less than perfection.

And what perfection. Where Wise’s film looks like a play brought to screen, Spielberg’s looks like a Cinemascope expansive production. Everything is grittier. The actors are tougher. The camera work is immaculate. Maria, played by newcomer Rachel Zeglar, is heartbreakingly beautiful and Spielberg’s camera loves her. Riff, the lead Jet, nearly steals the show. Iris Menas updates the “Anybodys” tomboy character as transgender. Justin Peck’s dance numbers rival the original Robbins creations. And the music and updated lyrics still resonate. This is one beautiful movie.

As much as I hate to, Greg, I have to agree with you. I think you and I both concur that if there was one big mistake in the production of the film, it was casting Ansel Elgort in the role of Tony. Elgort’s a fine actor but he has a “soft” look and the face of an angel. When Tony and Riff interact, the contrast is startling. Riff has the scars, the swagger, the toughness and arrogance of a gang member, whereas Tony looks like he’s a pampered country-club kid who’s been to finishing school.

Overall, Spielberg has done a masterful job in recreating West Side Story. The hero’s journey is powerful, standing out in bold relief. Tony transforms himself from near-killer to do-gooder, yet his pride and hubris fuel his demise. Joseph Campbell always warned us that not all hero stories have happy endings. “There’s always the possibility of a fiasco,” he wrote. I give this movie 5 Reels out of 5. Same with this terrific hero ensemble; they also merit all 5 hero points out of 5.

Rita Moreno deserves special praise as the owner of the local pharmacy. As such, she is the neighborhood mentor. Moreno is wonderful in the role which Spielberg created just for her. On the set, she became a real-world mentor as she shared her life long acting and social experiences with her fellow actors. Spielberg felt she was such an integral part of the production that he made her an executive producer.

The one fly in the ointment is Ansel Elgort, who is supposed to be an ex-convict ex-Jet tough guy who served a year for nearly killing a kid with his bare hands. Elgort looks instead like a kid born of a fashion photographer and an opera director – which he is. He is so wooden and stoic that we wonder if he’s in the same film as the rest of the troupe. This is especially clear when he plays against Mike Faist (Riff). In their scenes, Faist nearly runs off with the show, while Elgort seems lost and stretches to keep up.

As wonderful a production as this is, I have to wonder if we really needed a retcon of a 1961 classic. There are so many emerging voices in filmmaking and in Hollywood today. Would it not have been a better for Spielberg to have lent his vast resources and power to a lesser-known Latinx director with organic sensibilities?

If we look at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” (2021), we see a wonderful story of Latinx immigration told by, and acted by, people who have lived in that culture. Rather than gang-on-gang violence, it’s the story of an immigrant community that is being pushed out by gentrification. It also deals with Latinx folks straddling the line between becoming American and maintaining their Dominican roots.

In the end, I enjoyed Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” It’s a fine update to a classic. But I think it does little to repair the damage done by the original. It only perpetuates one of Hollywood’s biggest issues: that of the Hollywood elite trying to tell the stories of people they have no first-hand experience of.

It might have been better to let “West Side Story” fade into history, and allow new stories to take its place.

Movie Greg Scott
West Side Story (2021)

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