Thursday April 21, 2022
Movie Review: West Side Story (2021)
It’s not often that someone makes a classic better, but I guess most people aren’t Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner.
It didn’t hurt either that they were adapting the work of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. And Shakespeare.
I mean, look at that fucking roster.
Spielberg and Kushner clarify things about “West Side Story” that I didn’t know needed clarifying. I never got a sense from the original that the Jets and the Sharks were anything other than gangs in a slum fighting over turf, but here there are historic reasons for what’s going on. Robert Moses’ urban renewal program is destroying neighborhoods, their neighborhoods, so the Jets and the Sharks have less turf on which to exist. The powers that be are essentially pushing them together, and they’re blaming each other rather than the powers that be.
In the ’61 original, the territories seemed amorphous. In real life, there are lines—“Yeah, you don’t go into that neighborhood”—and at the beginning of this one, the Jets cross that line, 68th and Broadway, to cause trouble in the Latino neighborhood: to take back what they feel is theirs. Down goes the Cocina Criolla sign covering up the Irish Pub sign; up goes the paint to cover the Puerto Rican flag mural. Then it’s back to their hangout, Doc’s, which is already at the edge of the urban renewal destruction. It looks like the last store standing in a war zone.
How about Anybodys? In the original she was just a girl trying to hang with the boys. She was a punchline. Here, played by Iris Menas, she’s obviously trans and packs a punch. Literally. I love the moment at the end, after Riff and Bernardo have been killed, when she, a figure flitting in the shadows, delivers intel on Chino and the gun and is finally accepted into the gang. The myriad emotions that wash over her face: gratitude and pride, and then … confusion. As if to say: Is that all there is?
Officer Krupke isn’t just comic relief. As played by Brian d’Arcy James, he’s allowed dignity. He’s a good cop in a bad situation. The “Dear Officer Krupke” bit has been transferred to the police station, without Krupke present, and it’s insanely good. The Jets aren’t doing it to get back at Krupke; they’re doing it to amuse themselves. They’re doing it to mock every authority figure that thinks knows them: cop, judge, shrink, social worker.
I like how the songs come out of nowhere. Just a thought, a whisper, a kind of stumbling, before finally catching and going full-blown. “Deeeeaaarrr kindly Sgt. Krupke…” Or Tony by the schoolyard, repeating the name of the girl he just met, under his breath, before breaking into song, soaring into song, with “Maria.” Kushner’s script grounds us in the historic realities of 1950s New York while Spielberg’s direction makes it soar.
Everyone talks up Mike Faist as Riff and Ariana DeBose as Anita, not to mention the pipes on Rachel Zegler’s Maria, but Ansel Elgort’s Tony feels like an overlooked performance to me. Is it the toughest role? He has to be someone who’s leader enough to start the Jets, tough enough to still be pursued by the Jets, and someone wholly, fully in love. Elgort nails all of this. The balcony scene, “Tonight,” makes me believe in love again. I also believe he could kill. He talks about his regret at nearly beating another kid to death, how one more punch might’ve done it. And then we see him nearly do it again with Bernardo. Does this take away from the tragedy? In the original it just seems like a bad string of events, unlucky circumstances, and if they’d made it past this point things would’ve been OK. Here, I thought, “You know, if it wasn’t Bernardo it would’ve been someone else. He would’ve gone zero-to-60 with someone else at some other time.” Which, I guess, is tragedy enough.
I could go on: the photography, the shots, the camera angles. The overhead of the gang fight at the salt mines, with the long shadows of the gang members meeting in the middle before they do. Then juxtapose it with the overhead of the cops coming in afterwards: their long shadows falling upon the dead bodies of Riff and Bernardo. My nephew Jordan talked up the puddle shot and I was like “What puddle shot?” He: “As Tony’s looking up the puddles take on this surreal colorful quality. Gorgeous.”
The dancing? The toreador bit from “America” has been tossed for something more muscular and boxing. All the choreography feels harder now. And those songs? Those seemingly effortlessly beautiful songs? The playing/praying of “Maria” really got me in a new way this time. And city/committee from “I Feel Pretty.”
Is “I Feel Pretty” misplaced? We get it after the gang fight, but before Maria knows her brother is dead. Feels like the wrong time. And something felt off, not quite connected, between Maria finding out Tony killed Bernardo but sleeping with him anyway. I love Corey Stoll but his Lt. Schrank added little. But I loved Rita Moreno as the widow of Doc, running Doc’s, mentoring Tony. We see an old photo of her and Doc, and for a second I wondered if that was the original Doc, Ned Glass, next to her. Then I wondered if it might not be Spielberg's dad, who died in 2020, age 103, and to whom the movie is dedicated. Wouldn't that be a nice present? Hey dad, I fixed you up with Rita Moreno. But it seems to be neither of those men.
I didn’t get a strong sense of the Sharks as a gang. In the original, you see how the violence of the Jets helps create the Sharks. Here, when are the Sharks ever together as a gang? A bit during the dance but it feels loose and unaffiliated. We see the Jets creating havoc in PR territory, singing about being a Jet, singing about Office Krupke, watching Tony and Riff battle over a gun on the docks. The Sharks don’t even get their own song. Or their songs are dominated by women. That’s another big difference. The Sharks’ girls, Anita and Maria, are main characters, while the Jets’ girls barely register; they barely have a line.
The sweet spot
The ending requires everyone to act their worst selves. Maria never should have sent Anita, still grieving for Bernardo, with a message for Tony. Anita’s good deed then goes punished when the Jets attempt to rape her—a scene that’s always tough to watch—and so she acts her worst self, delivering the message that Maria is dead. That leads Tony into the streets crying out for Chino to end his misery. I like that even after he’s shot, as the life ebbs out of him, Tony’s eyes still shine with happiness because he’s in Maria’s arms.
There’s a sweet spot between art and commerce, identification and fantasy, fine and bold lines, that's tough to hit. In literature I think of “Gatsby” and “Garp” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” It has to be accessible, maybe even breezy, but deep, somehow. I think Spielberg’s “West Side Story” hits it. It should've won best picture. I watched it and felt filled.
It’s Spielberg’s first musical after more than 50 years in the biz. Encore.