Does the musical still matter? Outside the realm of animation, lately it doesn’t seem to be a very bankable genre, with the latest evidence being the underwhelming box office hauls of In The Heights and Dear Evan Hansen. To be fair, one of those had the misfortune of dealing with a simultaneous release on HBO Max, while the other had the misfortune of being Dear Evan Hansen. Nonetheless, the genre has proven to be a tough sell for modern audiences if it isn’t some CG animal doing all the singing. For me, musicals are one of my least favorite genres. It’s not that there aren’t standouts, but it is often difficult to sit through a litany of people singing their character motivations at you, or worse – an overly earnest set-piece that seemingly goes on forever without progressing the story at all. It’s usually the opposite of what moviegoers want if they desire dramatization over showy exposition.
Speaking of moviegoers, does Steven Spielberg still ring their ears in the same way? Once the undisputed King of the box office, Spielberg has had an… interesting last 15 years. One in which he has mostly abandoned easily accessible popcorn fare for no-nonsense dramas with weighty themes. In addition, the look of his films have become progressively more muted over time, perhaps a declaration of his own self-aware maturity. He’s an older statesman that feels old-fashioned in his storytelling, even when he’s playing with new technology. So does West Side Story, a period-piece/musical helmed by the silver screen’s former monarch, still matter despite all that “old-fashioned” baggage?
Well, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is, if nothing else, an extravagant appeal to those with an appreciation for how films used to be made. The opening scene gets right to the literal action, plunging into the rivalry between the Italian Jets gang, headed by the smarmy Riff (Mike Faist), and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The Jets attempt to antagonize the Sharks by painting over a mural of the Puerto Rican flag, and then all hell breaks loose. The cops do their best to quell the brawl but are also clearly biased in favor of the Jets. Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) challenges the Jets to not sink to the levels of barbarians, and belittles them by stating they’ll be the last of the “can’t make it Caucasians.” Goodness Krupke, do we really need to bring that energy? If he wanted to, he could easily start a cult of disenfranchised men who feel their country is being taken from them.
Meanwhile, the issue the Sharks face is the racial tension within New York. One of the gang’s leaders, Bernardo (David Alvarez), tries repeatedly to get his girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose), to agree to move back to Puerto Rico. She refuses, insisting that America is their home despite all of it’s flaws. Bernardo’s dilemma is exacerbated when his younger sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), takes an unexpected liking to the charming Tony (Ansel Elgort). Not only is Tony a gringo, but he is close friends with Riff and the Jets, meaning these star-crossed lovers may inadvertently set off a gang war.
The new film is a remake to the 1961 original (which won 10 Academy Awards). The original in itself was an adaptation of the Broadway musical, a musical that was loosely based on the Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. I know, that’s a lot of lineages. Spielberg’s film, however, mostly concerns itself with the 1961 film, legendary for its critical acclaim and re-watchability, while infamous for its use of Brownface. Thankfully, this time, the cast is filled with actual Puerto Ricans. On an unrelated note, bronzer sales are down 10%.
While Spielberg jettisons the whitewashing, he honors the original’s traditionalist filmmaking. Despite being filmed in New York and New Jersey, the remake at times has the atmosphere of a Soundstage. That’s not meant as a dig, but an acknowledgment that the production design exists in a heightened reality from 1950s New York. When Tony goes to meet Maria at her bedroom window, a direct homage to Romeo and Juliet of course, the height of the apartment buildings and the clotheslines feel like they were constructed from scratch just for this tale, as if this sliver of New York belongs to this film universe and not an inch beyond that.
The romance is handled adeptly; both performances are believably awestruck. Elgort’s performance is passionate, while Zegler does so much with her eyes. You can tell precisely what Maria thinks of Tony, and various other characters, just by the way she looks, before she even says a word. Elgort’s performance at times, particularly towards the end, is the one that delves too far into “stage play acting” while everyone else is giving a cinematic performance. The former can certainly work if the entire cast is doing that, but not if only one performance is eliciting that type of feeling. Mike Faist, as Riff, is charmingly incendiary, while DeBose and Rita Moreno may garner awards consideration for their efforts. Moreno, in particular, may have a great narrative on her side; she played Anita in the original 1961 film, and here she shares a sweet scene with the new Anita. But Moreno’s big moment is when she songs Somewhere, an ode to the dream and promise of being an American.
The camera moves swiftly, but never unrealistically. No one knows how to block and frame a scene like Spielberg, and his ever-moving camera turns medium shots into oners, back into medium shots, then into grand wide shots. He takes rather mundane ingredients and turns it into art. When Tony starts singing atop a puddle of water, the angle and perspective of the shot make it a beautiful portrait; almost anyone else not named Spielberg would just see a puddle. However, Spielberg turns down the pizazz when it’s time for the characters to talk to each other. Modern films have a blistering pace, filled with thousands of cuts and transitions, and individual scenes that don’t dare to go beyond 3 minutes. But West Side Story takes it’s time in the dialogue scenes, a choice that is not only honoring the film’s Broadway origins but is reminiscent of films of old. 50 years ago, it was common to see two characters talk to each other in one location for 10 minutes straight. Now, you’re only likely to see that in a prestigious TV drama.
But, in order to truly be great, West Side Story can’t simply settle for being a throwback. It must also adapt it’s time-worn story for a new age. It’s clear from the get-go that the story is a metaphor for political unrest, particularly in America, in our current times. However, it’s debatable how apt this metaphor is without having the story strain itself. Maria and Tony dive headfirst in love, but Maria eventually exhibits guilt that their romance is doing more harm than good. As the 3rd act progresses, several characters make rather polarizing choices that could leave an audience unsure how to feel. Part of the issue is that Maria, Anita, and Tony only seem to make choices that are influenced by their romantic relationships, not because they seem to have strong opinions on the rivalry between the Jets and Sharks. As a result, we feel the foolishness inherent in their choices, but we don’t feel any conviction because the three all feel like passengers in a bigger conflict. Even when they do make choices, it’s merely a reaction to the actions of Bernardo and Riff, whose unwavering beliefs are what’s really driving the plot forward.
This is best exemplified in the desires of Maria. She wants to be with Tony, but she also wants peace. However, when a major development shows that one is clearly compromising the other, it doesn’t take much for her to abandon one of her two goals. So how much can we, the audience, buy into the “dilemma” if she can so easily choose one over the other? It makes for an entertaining soap opera, but not for challenging drama.
It’s clear that West Side Story is on the side of togetherness and compromise. But what’s not clear is how the movie thinks that can happen. It seems the film’s thesis is, as Tony puts it, that life and love are one in the same. Those two things, the film argues, is what we all have in common despite our differences. But is it too simplistic for a complex issue? I’m not certain the film understands why hate exists, or how to extinguish its fire. What the movie leads us to is a tragic circumstance based on a very forced misunderstanding. Its a misunderstanding that acts as a plot device for a preordained destination, not a misunderstanding that speaks to how such things occur in our culture and help to spur unrest. The screenplay was written by playwright Tony Kushner, and just as his Broadway sensibilities breathe life into the production, those same sensibilities highlight an incongruity in the character’s motivations and actions.
However, I don’t think West Side Story is something people should actively skip. It’s flaws are understandable, as all parties have the best of intentions, and imperfect art is the lifeblood of the medium. The film’s imperfections fit in nicely with a mediation on the psyche if the youth, which is what both West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet are about (most of these characters are teenagers). The youth, particularly in the face of complex human issues, are often either overly idealistic or overly emotional. Life isn’t just love, it’s also hate, confusion, uneven perspective, choices you can never take back, and desires you wish you didn’t have. I can’t say West Side Story teaches you how to eliminate hate. But the film, an ambitious musical that isn’t embarrassed to be one, doesn’t need to be perfect in order to matter.