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Non-Review Review: West Side Story

In some ways, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is a match made in heaven, a union that feels as perfect as the story’s central romance.

After all, West Side Story is one of the quintessential American texts. In its review of the classic Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins adaptation, The Hollywood Reporter described the film musical as “the one dramatic form that is purely American and purely Hollywood”, and West Side Story is a musical that takes that idea to its extreme, with a show-stopping number literally titled In America. More than that, the previous cinematic adaptation stands as one of the virtuoso examples of classic Hollywood studio filmmaking, with its beautiful production design, large cast, and beautiful backlot.

“Do you want to dance or do you want to fight?”

Steven Spielberg is perhaps the most purely American and most purely Hollywood director of his generation. He is just as much a monolyth of American popular culture as West Side Story or even the cinemative musical. Writer Arthur Ryel-Lindsey might have sarcastically declared that “Steven Spielberg is American culture”, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. Depending on who you ask, Spielberg is “the defining American populist of his generation”, “possibly the greatest American director”, or even simply “synonymous with cinema.” So West Side Story feels like a wonderful synthesis of material and director.

Plus, you know, Spielberg knows how to direct sharks.

“Maria, you gotta see her…”

Spielberg has openly and repeatedly talked about his desire to direct a classical and old-fashioned musical. He even cited West Side Story as a potential candidate in an interview with Total Film in 2004. It’s notable that many of his contemporaries of the “Movie Brat” generation got the chance to to take their own shot at the beloved genre during the seventies and eighties, usually as messy passion projects like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York or Brian dePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise or Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart.

Spielberg has only fleetingly flirted with the musical, often in his more overlooked and maligned films, such as the dancehall sequence in 1941 or the “Anything Goes” opening number in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Spielberg was always a canny director, conscious of what the audience expected from him. It is arguably what kept him afloat while many of his contemporaries struggled in the transition from the seventies into the eigthties. While Scorsese doubled down on New York, New York with the “kamikaze” filmmaking of Raging Bull, Spielberg retreated from 1941 to the populism of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Gotta Jet.

Still, Spielberg’s affection for the old studio was obvious, even in the early stretches of his career. His prestige project The Colour Purple contains a chaotic bar room brawl, just like 1941 and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which often feels like Spielberg’s riff on a big song-and-dance number. Empire of the Sun pauses for one moment to take in the majesty of a poster for Gone With the Wind. Indeed, Always was itself a loose remake of the old romantic drama, A Guy Named Joe, albeit one updated for the modern era.

As Spielberg has gotten older, he seems at once more comfortable in his own skin and more reflective of his cinematic legacy. It makes sense that Spielberg would return to his desire to make a musical, given his recent output. Spielberg’s later career feeling increasingly nostalgic for “the kinds of movies they don’t really make any more”, with all the John Ford references in War Horse or with The Post positioned as a companion piece (complete with closing teaser) to All the President’s Men. In that context, West Side Story feels like it arrives at the perfect time for Spielberg.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

To be fair, there’s also some indication that the time is right for West Side Story in other ways. Notably, the classical musical has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. It’s possible to point to movies like La La Land as a starting point, or even successful jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia. It’s also possible to credit the smash success of Hamilton as a multimedia phenomenon, and it seems fitting that the DIsney+ presentation of the musical kickstarted a trend that continues this year with movies like Annette, In the Heights and tick, tick… BOOM! Spielberg’s West Side Story feels perfectly timed.

To get it out of the way up front, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is not as good as the 1961 version. Then again, few films are. If failing to stand as one of the very best examples of a particular style of Hollywood production is the movie’s biggest flaw, West Side Story acquits itself very well indeed. Wise and Robbins’s musical was a love letter to a studio system that was at the peak of its power, coming off the back of the fifties. It also reflected a version of America that had complete emerged from the shadow of the Second World War, and which had thrived through the economic boom of the fifties.

Fighting over the ruins.

In contrast, Spielberg’s adaptation feels more openly funereal and elegiac. It is a story about the end of something, rather than the peak of something. The movie’s opening shot is a trademark Spielberg long take, as the camera glides and swoops over the ruins of an old neighboorhood that is being demolished to make way for gentrification. That opening shot is devastating, and heartbreaking. It suggests ruins, collapse and decay. In some ways, it looks more like imagery from Saving Private Ryan than from Catch Me If You Can. It’s a fitting place to start for a musical riffing on Romeo and Juliet.

It’s an obvious piece of social commentary that situates West Side Story in the realities of sixties New York rather than the fantasy of it. This is what was happening to the city as West Side Story painted a vibrant and colourful picture of the metropolis. In some ways, with its period setting, West Side Story feels like a more insightful commentary on gentrification than In the Heights, reflecting that the battle was fought – and perhaps lost – at least a generation earlier.

Deface the wall.

Working from a script by frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, Spielberg doesn’t necessarily reinvent or reimagine West Side Story. It would be too much to suggest that Spielberg and Kushner “modernise” the musical to make it more “relevant” to the modern world. After all, it is not as if the modern challenges facing these communities and the modern causes of such violence are radically different than they were sixty years earlier. The world has changed, but not so much that West Side Story has fallen out of step.

Instead, Kushner and Spielberg simply underscore the themes of the classic musical that still resonate today: the tribalism, the anxiety about social displacement, the lack of direction for many young men, and the failures of the institutions meant to protect them. Kushner and Spielberg pay particular attention to the crisis of masculinity that informs the Jets and the Sharks, which has always been one of the more compelling aspects of West Side Story – the tension between these rugged, violent young men and the graceful ballet that they perform.

“Boys will be boys.”

The biggest changes that Kushner and Spielberg make are largely foregrounding elements that were present in the earlier versions, but not explicitly articulated – at least partially due to the standards of the time. The film explores the complicity of law enforcement in this social collapse, making Lieutenant Schrank a much meatier character. Similarly, a horrific assault late in the story is explicitly acknowledged for what it is and actually dwelt on, rather than having the characters talk around it. The changes are minimal, but they are important. They enhance a meaning that was already present, rather than inventing one from nothing.

Spielberg wisely avoids competing too directly with the previous cinematic adaptation, understanding that it is a movie imprinted on the American consciousness. The classic songs are all here, but many are visualised in new ways. Spielberg doesn’t try to erase or ignore his own stylistic sensibility, instead structuring the musical numbers to play to his creative strengths. There lots of technically impressive long takes, lots of sweeping shots, lots of moments in which the camera urges the audience to take on the scale and spectacle of the musical numbers with childlike wonder and awe.

A familiar tune.

Complimenting Spielberg’s approach to the material, Kushner’s script places an emphasis on character and back story largely missing from the earlier adaptation. There’s a much greater emphasis placed on character motivations and history, most notably Tony’s prison record and Marie’s status as a relatively new arrival in New York. The characters in this particular adaptation seem more like real people even in this fantastical setting, once again leaning into the tension between the musical’s grounded setting and the hyperreality of an old-fashioned musical.

That said, there are some minor issues. Spielberg repeats the biggest issue with the earlier cinematic adaptation. The two leads are the weakest part of this version of West Side Story, in both conception and performance. Kushner’s script gives them a bit more nuance and depth, but Tony and Marie are never as compelling as the rest of the ensemble around them. This is something of a historic problem for actor Ansel Elgort, who was also the weakest part of the ensemble in Baby Driver. That said, it is worth acknowledging the very real accusations against Elgort.

“There’ll be dancing… dancing in the streets.”

Still, Spielberg cannily stacks the deck with a charismatic ensemble, including breakout work from Broadway actors Mike Faist as Riff and Ariana DeBose as Anita. Both actors light up the screen, suggesting the possibility of long careers ahead of them. The film also features a beautiful supporting turn from original cast member Rita Moreno, cast in the role of Valentina, who fills a lot of Doc’s function from the original stage play and the earlier adaptation. It’s a very fine line to walk with this sort of self-aware casting, and it could easily fall into fan service, but West Side Story uses Moreno’s status in interesting and clever ways.

While cinematographer and regular collaborator Janusz Kamiński gives the film the sort of vibrant colours that one expects from a movie like this, Spielberg’s take on the film is more elegiac than the earlier version. West Side Story is populated with the reds, the whites and the blues that one expects from such a quintessentially American film. However, they seem somewhat faded and just a little washed out. It’s as if everything in the film has been covered in dust from the demolitions. (In a small, inspired touch, the coloured glass in Maria’s apartment has been replaced with colour sheets over clear glass.)

More Moreno.

Throughout West Side Story, characters meet in collapsed docklands and abandoned industrial estates. They fight for dominance in the ruins of demolished tenements. It’s a candid acknowledgement of the horrors of gentrification, but also perhaps Spielberg acknowledging that the studio system that made something like the earlier adaptation of West Side Story has long been knocked down and replaced. It’s worth noting that the movie’s lengthy opening shot surveying the rubble of the West Side reveals that these living spaces and apartments wiped out to make room for the Lincoln Centre. The old gives way to new culture.

It’s tempting to read something just a little bit self-reflective in all that, like Spielberg’s emphasis on James Halliday in Ready Player One or his anxiety over David in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. During that opening shot, the camera pauses to linger on the giant wrecking ball that was presumably responsible for such wide-scale destruction. In some ways, Spielberg was that wrecking ball. He was part of the New Hollywood wave that demolished the old studio system. Then he was the pioneer of blockbusters like Jaws that erased that New Hollywood.

Take me to church.

Spielberg was part of the movement that made movies like West Side Story extinct, and so there’s something moving in watching Spielberg use his power and his influence to resurrect that sort of film – even briefly. That long opening shot breaks with a character pushing out from a trapdoor underneath the rubble, as if escaping a tomb for some brief respite. (Much of West Side Story finds characters in basements or churches, playing to this theme.) Whereas the original adaptation ended in a communal area, this adaptation ends in the skeleton of a neighbourhood.

Still, for its two-hour run-time, West Side Story revives an old tune, and proves it’s as catchy as ever.

One Response

  1. I Think Rachel Zegler should be casting as Veronica Sawyer In a film adaptation of Heathers: The Musical

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