starring Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rachel Zegler
screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the stage play by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
directed by Steven Spielberg
by Walter Chaw West Side Story is the perfect vehicle for all of Spielberg's prodigious strengths while deemphasizing his obvious weaknesses. In that way, it reminded me of another Stephen Sondheim adaptation, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, wherein a savant-like visual artist is paired with a genius for storytelling, plotting, and characterization. It occurs to me that every single Robert Wise film would be better had Spielberg directed it. This isn't because Wise butchered The Magnificent Ambersons and betrayed Val Lewton, it's because he played in the same sandbox as Spielberg and no one has ever been better at building those particular sandcastles. There's a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Spielberg, with a drumbeat gathering power on the soundtrack, transitions from a sign at a crossroads pointing to Berlin to a book burning in a public square. Kind of like the ones they're organizing in central Virginia right now. He does it again in A.I. in the lead-up to the Flesh Fair. The combination of action and the rising thrum on the soundtrack is...visceral? Yes, that; kinetic, too. Chills-inducing. He uses the tactic again in the build-up to the "Mambo" number as Anita, Bernardo, and Maria arrive at the school gymnasium for the big dance. You hear the music, muted, through the doors, and then they're thrown open, and Jerome Robbins's ageless choreography explodes with all the furious vibrancy a collaboration between Jerome fucking Robbins and Steven fucking Spielberg promises. It's a synesthetic representation of life and youth, ridiculously effective. We speak of spectacle films and the magic of "big" movies--I don't know that I've felt a film's scale like this in decades. All of this West Side Story's showstoppers are just that. They are alive and fresh, and Spielberg gets that when you have a Robbins or a Fosse or an Agnes DeMille, your job is to dance it like your shoes are on fire and let us see the bodies from head to toe. There is possibly no better visual storyteller in the history of movies than Spielberg, who finds in this partnership with great artists alive and dead the truest fruition of his gift.
West Side Story is of course a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet", the love story between children of feuding families that ends in murder and suicide. The Romeo, Tony, is a member of the Caucasian street gang "The Jets," while his Juliet, Maria (Rachel Zegler), is the sister of the leader of Puerto Rican gang "The Sharks." As the Jets walk through New York's Little Puerto Rico section, the opening number shows a city on the verge of gentrification. Whole sections of the place look like a war zone, mountains of rubble; during the climax--in which Tony's Mercutio, Riff (a towering Mike Faist), is murdered--there are mountains of salt one of the Jets refers to as "the North Pole." Adam Stockhausen's production design--a combination of sets, CGI, and location-shooting--reflects a society in decline, rent by racial animus and crushed under the looming shadow of the voracious, ever-insatiable wealthy. Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) has an augmented speech after breaking up an early rumble between the gangs, calling the Jets the last of the "can't-make-it Caucasians." The sources of white rage, that reactionary impulse of the terminally mediocre, aware of the privilege they've squandered, is indicted by this film. And then the Jets are thrown in with the Sharks as joined in poverty with their common enemy, forever unseen while the product of their greed manifests everywhere as despair and destruction. Doc's, run not by Doc in this incarnation but by his widow, Valentina (Rita Moreno, the original film's Anita), appears to be the only building standing in a city block razed to make way for "nice apartments" that no one in the film will be able to afford. A few shots suggest Dresden after the firebombing.
I do want to note a painful detail that feels like a rare misstep. The end credits still list the Anybodys character as a member of "their girls." ("Their" being the Jets.) I think there's a titanic shift in how this character is represented in Spielberg's updating, especially in the casting of the great Ezra Menas. In every other version of the play that I've seen, the Anybodys character is a "tomboy" who nonetheless identifies as a woman; in this iteration, he's a trans man, humiliated and assaulted (that is, pantsed) by the gang he wants to be accepted into. The "gang," then, becomes larger than this little street gang. Anybodys wants the society that has rejected and harmed him to see him for who he is, and his arc, under the guidance of Tony Kushner's reworking of Ernest Lehman's script (based again on Arthur Larents's book), is pure and exhilarating. (The moment he's recognized as "buddy boy" and an official member of the Jets, he's given a close-up with the prison bars of a security gate opened to reveal him as if for the first time.) It's a huge step forward that should have been recognized in the credits but is, alas, not. The complexity of this oversight is that I think in the desire to honour the traditional credits order of the piece, the picture has erred on the side of devotion over evolution--the sort of well-meaning nod to tradition that can actually be more painful than overt bigotry.
I had more complaints, like how some of the additional material feels forced and dry, not unlike the French Plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now Redux. What used to be staged on the street outside a drugstore--Tony's rationale for quitting the Jets--now unfolds with more exposition in the basement of Doc's. I don't know if I love it like I grew to love the French Plantation sequence, although it's trying to do the same thing in providing a context to the atrocity that's about to happen, even though the characters don't know why. In the source material, it's all a little hazy: Tony's growing up, getting a job, finding hope for a better future unrelated to running the streets. In this version, he's fresh from a stint in the pen for beating a member of the Egyptian Emeralds (a racial distinction absent until now) nearly to death. Later, he says to nemesis Bernardo (David Alvarez), who also inherits a slightly richer backstory as a prizefighter, that his time in prison has changed him. It doesn't prevent the terrible things from happening, but it plants threads to pull now, subtle moral complexities that drive these characters whereas before their motives, however heartfelt, seemed naive. By staging it beneath Doc's, Kushner and Spielberg create subtext for the piece previously teased at best--the stray line about minimum wages that Sondheim inserted for the film's "America" number, the quick mention of "it's a small territory" by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), expanded here into a couple of city blocks that are not only small but in their last hour.
Wise's West Side Story appeared in the same year as such norm-shattering, epoch-defining films as Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Hustler, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, Huston's The Misfits, and Brando's One-Eyed Jacks. For all its Old Hollywood trappings, its themes dealing with juvenile delinquents and racially-motivated cultural hostilities remain socially progressive. The film stands tall among the bellwethers of Sixties cinema in which the myth of the lone hero is dismantled, the pillars of a civilized society are shown to be crumbling, and we see the seeds for the season of assassination and the paranoid Seventies being sown. What now, now that all of that's happened and no one thought to stop it? I initially felt that Kushner's deepening of Tony and Bernardo was clunky and superfluous, yet I was wrong on reflection. It works. It works in the same way that making Anybodys a trans man defiant about his identity in the face of constant abuse works. In the same way the film's refusal to subtitle its Spanish dialogue--spoken prolifically by the Sharks throughout--works.
It's not just the centring and celebration of Spanish in West Side Story, it's the overriding message of how our differences are magnified by forces who profit from the cover that conflict provides them. It doesn't matter if you don't speak Spanish, because when an older brother forced into the role of paterfamilias and his 18-year-old sister, fresh off the boat, have an argument over breakfast about a boy she's met, you know precisely what they're saying. I have often thought of how the great Shakespeare adaptations show me things about the work I hadn't considered before--like how Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet opened my eyes to the play as a military and political history. I felt the same "eureka" during this restaging of the "I Feel Pretty" set-piece after-hours at Gimbels department store, where Maria, Anita (Ariana DeBose), and their friends work as cleaners. When Maria sings the line "That I hardly can believe I'm real," she's singing it to a white mannequin and wearing a silk scarf she's taken from it that she can't afford. In this film, the rich are unreal, essentially inauthentic and unempathetic to the lives struggling immigrants and the poor are forced into by the 1%. Bernardo's new profession as a small-time boxer speaks to the only way he might become wealthy in this country: by getting destroyed in a bloodsport for the pleasure of the ruling class. It's not explicit in the text, but it's there now and that's very cool. The "I Feel Pretty" sequence puts Maria in the middle of rows of dressing-room mirrors where her image is multiplied into infinity--suddenly, in the midst of the film's social despair, a message of hope, too. The future of this country is brown, no matter the obstacles to success. It's meaningful to me personally, as the father of two biracial kids, that the actors playing Maria and Anita are both biracial. That's the melting pot. To paraphrase Janelle Monae, they're "not the American nightmare; (they're) the American Dream."
Spielberg shoots the "Tonight" sequence, where after the dance Tony finds Maria for their "balcony scene," with the young lovers separated by bars and locked chainlink, which speaks eloquently to the suffocating limitations their circumstances have placed on them. It's framed vertically rather than horizontally, a traversing across catwalks with the final ascent blocked. A piece about a race war finally fingers its villain as the broken promises of America and capitalism--clarified now where before it's only strongly implied via the "America" song. Structurally, the biggest change is the relocation of "Cool" from after Riff's death to the part where Riff gets a gun and Tony tries to take it away from him. Guns are explicitly the escalation you can't come back from in this West Side Story. There's a sense of eye-for-an-eye justice in Riff and Bernardo's killings, but there's no redress for Tony's fate at the hands of the desexualized Chino (Josh Andres Rivera). Here, Riff and Tony fight for control of the gun on a decaying bridge over a long drop. The ties that should bind us against our actual predators, weakening when the play was written in the late-'50s and virtually nonexistent today, are eradicated with the introduction of firearms. An armed population is the Cold War: the only way to win is to not play the game. These choices in how to shoot these well-known numbers, where to put them, how to dance and sing them, is not simply high art, but indeed a form of activism, even protest.
Towards the end, Anita avoids a gang rape at the hands of the Jets that she "no soy Americana, soy puertorriqueña." After her strong defense of America in "America," her rejection of it as a land of rape and honey is devastating. Just before the assault, one of the Jets remarks upon her afro-Puerto Rican colouring, and then, just after, Valentina breaks them up and says that she's watched them from the time they were kids to this night, when they've revealed themselves as rapists. West Side Story is done being polite about what it's about, and I'm here for it. I love the new Maria, how her young looks make it believable that she wants her first night out in New York to be magical--and also so terrible when she loses her innocent view of this island fortress. Like we all have about this place we grew up loving from afar and now mourn like a dying parent. I love how Ansel Elgort, the unconventional choice for this role, has about him a specific lunkish and almost blubbery simian looseness that reminds me of Stanley Kowalski's all-American, blue-collar schlub: another "dumb Polack" like the one Bernardo accuses Tony of being. Tony's a working-class stiff with a rap sheet. I buy that this girl who desperately wants to be American would fall for this distillation of white America. He is absurd in exactly the right way.
West Side Story is what updates of classic texts should be (and what Joel Coen's upcoming The Tragedy of Macbeth is as well): a new way in without destroying the foundation of what came before. It's that Jungian idea that we are only knowable to ourselves through the stories we've always told to make sense of the world. Someone says in this West Side Story that these fights between the Jets and the Sharks over this doomed plot of land is "mutually assured destruction," and it occurred to me that this is not the first time Spielberg has shot the clearing of a ghetto. It's not ethnically motivated here, but the kids involved in this racially-fuelled conflict don't know that. Their animus towards one another--they who are more alike than dissimilar--only benefits the people who need them out of the way to build their expensive homes, chichi eateries, dog parks, and tiny libraries. Tony and Bernardo don't figure that out in time. Valentina gets the "Somewhere" number and this transforms it from a thing of hopeless yearning to a thing of heartbroken wisdom--and that's the contribution of Spielberg and Kushner in a nutshell. There's a place for us. Take my hand and we're halfway there. I've long thought that it's too late to get wise to the scam. Though it's a tragedy, West Side Story is also an impassioned defense of burning bright. It's extraordinary. And, man, shit, Anybodys should've been listed with the Jets.