' ' Cinema Romantico: West Side Story

Monday, April 04, 2022

West Side Story

In a review of the 1961 “West Side Story” for his Great Movies series, Roger Ebert spends a good chunk of it explaining that Robert Wise’s film isn’t necessarily great. Good, yes, “great…in parts”, he says, but not overall, not quite. Those limitations are in the insulting brown makeup of its white actors playing Puerto Ricans, of course, as well as a piousness apart from a “contemporary reality” Ebert deems lacking, and the inert central romance of Tony and Maria, so inert it fails to to come across as the intended tragedy of innocents. So, now 60 years later, here comes grand maestro Steven Spielberg and Pulitzer winning writer Tony Kushner to take their crack. They cast Latinx actors in the bevy of Puerto Rican roles and infuse this “West Side Story” with much more of the previously insufficient contemporary reality, having the Puerto Rican characters frequently speak Spanish with no subtitles, which is not so much about productional authenticity as the characters themselves responding to the Americans who demand they speak English. Alas, Spielberg and Kushner garner no great mileage from their Tony and Maria either. Maybe that’s just asking the impossible. 

Spielberg has never attempted a proper musical. Yet even if his movies have occasionally featured a musical performance, like the “Anything Goes” intro to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” his sense of camera movement has always been extraordinarily rhythmic. So, it only makes sense that he would translate it so effortlessly to “West Side Story.” Indeed, rather than simply recreating songs and dances to be shown through a movie camera, he makes the camera an active participant, in both the opening sequence and the dance scene in the high school gymnasium where the camera seems to move in time with the dancers on the floor, swooping in among them and then gliding back out to breathe it all in. And though Spielberg favors full shots of the dancers, he lets his editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar frequently cut during these scenes anyway, those edits becoming as much about movement as the dancing. “America,” the best number of the original to this reviewer’s eyes, is even better here, blowing it out to epic proportions in an explosion of color and dancing. This scale does not hinder the ironic counterpoint built into the lyrics about what living in America means, but enhances it. Everything in America is bigger, whether you’re celebrating it or condemning it. 

As vibrant as some of these sequences can be, however, Spielberg is not just gunning for the fantastical but trying to bring the story’s fatalism up into the mix too. Unlike Wise’s film, which segues from aerial shots of the real New York to its heightened backlots, Spielberg moves his camera through piles of rubble, lingering on a sign cruelly announcing SLUM CLEARANCE. It’s a way to demonstrate from the jump that the neighborhood turf the Jets and Sharks are fighting over ultimately will not belong to either of them. (Like a late moment when a character calls attention to piles of salt lest we be forced to discern for ourselves what they are, Spielberg can’t help but re-underline this point of futility he has already made visually with dialogue throughout.) And when the introductory “Jet Song” ends after they parade through the street, it’s atop a pile of rubble with a wrecking ball in the background, deliberately muting the exclamation point.

In some ways, though, Spielberg’s devotion to this grittier sensation undermines him. He and Kushner add a backstory for Tony (Ansel Elgort), that he was in prison for a year after nearly killing someone in a fight, and, in his own words, remains afraid of what he might do now that he’s out. Essentially, this subplot delivers the worst of both worlds. Elgort never convinces he’s capable of anything sinister, exhibiting nothing more than basic brooding, and all that basic brooding, in turn, prevents his romance with Maria (Rachel Zegler) from having much juice just as Zegler is directed in these scenes to be a princess-y nullity. Scroll through Spielberg’s oeuvre and you will quickly discern that generating genuine romantic passion and tension has never been among his strengths, and there is not much he can manage here to dial it up, save for a few lens flares behind the bleachers at the dance mean to evoke stars shining down on Tony and Maria that just wind up putting the spotlight on how there is no real love there in the first place. 

Zegler, to her credit, works better on her own, evincing both a teenage innocence and a teenage intensity clashing over the idea of having to grow up too fast. The single best scene in the movie might be the one in her bedroom, making up her bed after falling asleep in her dress, putting into perspective the pressure between her private world and the harsher one just outside her window. That outside world is effectively rendered as something out of “The Third Man,” or the ruins of Ramelle in “Saving Private Ryan,” a fallen world, transforming the concluding showdown into Spielberg’s version of the final futile battle set during the Draft Riots of “Gangs of New York.” There is no meaning here, and oddly enough, in that way the meaningless of Tony and Maria’s Romance folds right in.

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