By Gerald Peary
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is fairly entertaining, fairly decent, but that’s about it.
West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg. In cinemas throughout New England
Yeah, yeah, Richard Beymer was a miscast stiff as Tony and Natalie Wood was a miscast white-bread movie star as Puerto Rican Maria, and, for both nonsingers, their musical numbers were dubbed. And the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, was populated by non-Hispanic dancers. Still, I was dazzled by the 1961 film of West Side Story when I saw it at age 17. I had a crush on Natalie Wood, so I looked past her deficiencies. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno took over the movie as smashing, charismatic incarnations of Bernardo and Anita. I adored the Leonard Bernstein music, and I played my Columbia Records soundtrack album again and again. Best of all, truly transcendent, was the mighty choreography of Jerome Robbins. He was the finest ever for Broadway dance.
Very nice memories, and I’ve never watched the Robert Wise–directed West Side Story again. Nor three other favorites from my teen years, the films of Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The King and I. My guess is that all have faded and dated, the way many musicals written directly for the screen have not: for example, the ever-fresh Astaire-Rogers musicals and Busby Berkeley’s ever-effervescent 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.
So, admittedly, I came to Steven Spielberg’s redoing of West Side Story for 2021 with trepidation. Why mess around with a good thing, even if the original bubbly movie was 60 years old? Was I being fair? I didn’t see it, but apparently a Broadway remake of Oklahoma! several years ago discovered, successfully, a dark underside to the sunny musical; and a recent New York revival of Carousel was also much touted. Maybe Spielberg was on to a new way, a revisionist, toughened West Side Story, especially since a new book was being provided by Tony Kushner, queer and left-wing and author of the great 1991 play of American theater, Angels in America.
My skepticism was justified. Spielberg’s West Side Story is fairly entertaining, fairly decent, but that’s about it. Should it have been remade? I see no reason at all. Those wonderful songs we all know and love (“Maria,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” “America,” etc.) feel pickled and antiquarian. They are “oldies” which, today, don’t excite. (I’ve heard that Stephen Sondheim — brilliantly ironic, cynical, jaded — separated himself from his 20-something earnest lyrics for West Side Story, so influenced by his hero, Oscar Hammerstein.) Kushner’s screenplay is disappointingly mundane, pedestrian, and, of a piece with the heavy-handed songs; the politics is finger-wagging, mainstream liberalism. Guns are bad. People of different races and ethnic groups should get along. And though there’s no police violence in this safe movie, there is one cop, added for the film, who is rude to the Puerto Ricans and clearly favors the Italian Jets in the turf war. (If only all law enforcement was as neutered and buffoonish as Officer Krupke!)
The characters remain what they were in the first movie: one-dimensional, especially Tony and Maria, Romeo-and-Juliet cutouts. A brand new character thrown in, played spiritedly by 90-year-old Rita Moreno, is a “woke” fairy godmother of consciousness. She’s the one who delivers a speech attacking Rape, shaming a roomful of Jets, a strained bit of Me Too oratory injected by Kushner to make the movie relevant to today. The other updates for a contemporary audience, nothing mind-blowing: the Sharks are now all played by Hispanics, and the new Maria (a sweet newcomer, Rachel Zegler) is half-Colombian. Also, the Sharks speak to each other mostly in nonsubtitled Spanish, though they sometimes awkwardly repeat the words after in English, for stunted Anglo viewers like me.
So what’s to like about the new West Side Story? Bernardo and Anita are again wisely cast, played with conviction by Ariana De Bose and David Alvarez, and Mike Faist is a feisty young thug as Riff, in the proud Warner Brothers tough-boy tradition. There’s a tense knife fight at one point, and, if not Jerome Robbins, Justin Peck provides some vigorous, inventive choreography: the Jets taking over the New York streets and a lively scene in which the Jets and Sharks and their molls try to one-up each other with their dancing. Spielberg’s directing is professional, of course, but strangely impersonal. And you can never go wrong with Janus Kamiński’s lavish cinematography.
Oh, a dab more politics. At the beginning of the film, there are street signs showing that this whole West Side of New York area is being cleared to put in the Lincoln Center Complex. That’s bad! Actually, as there is no physical 20th Century Fox studio these days, some terrain was cleared, Robert Moses-fashion, to put up the truly mammoth, many-million dollar set for this movie. Manhattan turned into rubble reminiscent of World War II Dresden. Did all this money need to be spent for the slum background of some songs and street fights? In fact, could the whole hundred million dollar budget of the new, mostly unneeded West Side Story been far better spent for homeless shelters or affordable housing? Just a silly thought.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.