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Loving is enough – ‘West Side Story’

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It takes a special kind of chutzpah to revisit a masterpiece.

Even today, in a world where every other big-ticket film project is either part of a franchise or a remake of some preexisting IP, there are certain movies that you might consider to be beyond reproach. The idea of trying to recreate legitimate movie magic, to somehow improve upon Pantheon-level greatness … let’s just say that few would dare and far fewer would succeed.

And yet, here we are with “West Side Story.”

The 1961 original – based on the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name – was directed by Jerome Robbins (who helped originate the stage musical) and Robert Wise, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It would become one of the most acclaimed films in Hollywood history, winning 10 Oscars and becoming by all accounts the most successful movie musical of all time. So who would have the gall (and the balls) to remake such a consensus cinematic classic?

Steven Spielberg would. And I have to tell you – it’s really good.

Working from a screenplay adapted by the great Tony Kushner, Spielberg has somehow found a happy medium that I for one had doubts even existed. He has treated the original with the deep respect and adulation that such a masterful work warrants while also finding ways in which to place his own stamp on the proceedings. This is the filmmaker at his best, using every tool in his directorial belt to celebrate the brilliance of the original while also taking full advantage of the half-century of technological and aesthetic development since that first incredible film.

It doesn’t hurt that he is working with source material that is inarguably one of the greatest and most influential musicals ever, itself inspired by one of the greatest and most influential romances ever. This “West Side Story” is both subtle and spectacular, a film that takes full advantage of both the material and the medium to create that rarest of rarities – a new take on a classic that might well wind up considered a classic in its own right.

My guess is that most of the people reading this know “West Side Story” – or at least its inspiration “Romeo & Juliet” – so we won’t belabor the synopsizing.

New York City in the 1950s, the San Juan Hill neighborhood. A gang of white teens – known as the Jets – are fighting to control their turf, bumping against the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. The respective leaders of the gangs, Riff (Mike Faist) and Bernardo (David Alvarez), are forced to a détente by the presence of law enforcement officials Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Office Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) – they decide to arrange for a rumble to determine who owns these streets once and for all.

Riff approaches his friend and former gang leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) to help, but Tony’s not interested; he’s just out of prison, working for Valentina (Rita Moreno) at Doc’s Corner Store. Riff puts the pressure on, telling him to come to that night’s dance.

Meanwhile, Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) are looking after Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler), a girl with big dreams. Bernardo is trying to pair her off with his pal Chino (Josh Andres Rivera); she agrees to go to the dance with him.

At the dance, tensions run high between the rival gangs, even as most everybody else just wants to dance and have a good time. That everybody else includes Tony and Maria, whose eyes lock across the crowded gymnasium, leading them to meet out of sight under the bleachers and, in the way of all great love stories, fall immediately and madly in love.

This presents all manner of problems, as you might imagine – problems that lead to struggles and sadness, the triumph of true love overcast by tragedy.

All of this put forward featuring moment after moment of dynamite and dynamic choreography, a bunch of classic songs that remain bangers more than 50 years after their creation and some absolutely exquisite performances – rendered through the masterful eye and aesthetic vision of one of mainstream cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

I’ll be the first to admit that I had my doubts about “West Side Story.” I mean … it’s “West Side Story.” This is an all-timer we’re talking about here. From the outside, it sure did look like a flying-too-close-to-the-sun level of hubris; it felt like the kind of choice that would prove regrettable to all involved. Real talk: I wondered if Spielberg and Kushner might be biting off more than they could chew. In retrospect, I probably should have remembered that these dudes are REALLY f—ing good at making movies.

“West Side Story” weds all of Spielberg’s blockbuster sensibilities with the broad spectacle of musical theatre and does so while also maintaining a sincere reverence for the greatness of what came before. It is bold and colorful and huge, invoking that same sense of grandeur that makes the musical such a unique art form. This new film has a bit more of an edge than its predecessor – there’s a bit more rancor, a bit more rage – but it all comes from a place of honesty.

And yes, some things are different. Doc becomes Valentina. Some of the songs come in different places in the story. Anybodys is played not as a tomboy but as trans (a well-executed performance by Iris Means). The timeline shifts skew the narrative somewhat, but the primary story remains largely unaltered.

(A note: Spielberg made the somewhat controversial decision not to subtitle lines when Spanish was being spoken in an effort to craft a more wholly inclusive experience. I thought it inspired – and had no trouble following despite having zero Spanish – but your mileage may vary.)

Plus, I love a production number and this movie is just lousy with excellent ones. The dancing throughout is unbelievable, plucked straight from the stage tradition while still fitting perfectly on screen. Whether we’re talking about romantic moments or scenes fraught with danger, it all clicks. Making a fight scene look dangerous while also incorporating ballet? Spielberg and company make it look easy. The rumble is exceptional from start to stop, but it is far from the only highlight (quick shoutout to “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which this movie crushes across the board).

And the songs. Good God the songs. No one needs me to tell them that American songbook classics like “Tonight” and “America” and “I Feel Pretty” are on point, but this is some all-killer no-filler stuff. I dare you to keep a dry eye when Rita Moreno herself busts out “Somewhere” – I certainly couldn’t do it.

And I haven’t even discussed the cast yet.

I’m on record as being a bit iffy on Ansel Elgort, but he handles his business beautifully here. While he’s a little too wispy to fully buy as a street tough, in this context, it generally works. And the dude can move. Zegler beat out some 30,000 hopefuls for the role of Maria; this marks her film debut … and what a debut. She certainly doesn’t come off as a first-timer – she is poised beyond her experiences, with a lovely singing voice and a delicate grace. And the two are lovely together.

But it’s in the supporting cast that we really start seeing some highlights. Faist looks and sounds like he was plucked off a city street corner circa 1957 – he’s got a great vibe and is one hell of a dancer. Alvarez exudes menace as Bernardo while also coming off as someone who only wants the best for his friends and family. You’d be hard pressed to find a better Mercutio/Tybalt dynamic. Moreno absolutely slays – this could have been mere stunt casting, a bid for nostalgia, but even at 90, she’s still got it. Stoll and especially d’Arcy capture the mean-spirited apathy of the cops. And you could argue that DeBose as Anita is the best performance in the whole damned movie; singing, dancing, acting – she goes full triple threat and looks great doing it.

“West Side Story” couldn’t possibly have lived up to the hype – until it did. It is a masterful, marvelous piece of work, a reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place. Rather than replacing the film that came before, it is instead a companion, a half-century-later reexamination of a canonical piece of musical theatre. It is beautiful to look at and to listen to, an absolute triumph.

Loving is enough.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Saturday, 11 December 2021 18:18


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