Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is set in the Upper West Side circa 1957, and before we start gushing about this story, let’s be clear—it’s about racial intolerance and it ends in death. Happy Holidays.
Now to Spielberg’s version of the “good ole’ days” he’s crafted a Broadway-meets-Hollywood classic and added screenwriter Tony Kushner to update the story about love with a bi-racial couple. And because it’s Spielberg, one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the history of cinema, he’s made it his own. And yet, the gifted man stayed reverently true to what generations have grown to love about “West Side Story” despite the undertones of racial intolerance that run through the story and are at the core.
But this is a musical and the songs toss you back and find ways to melt your heart.
This is a far cry from Robert Wise’s 1961 screen version. Spielberg’s story takes us into the darker side of the city, set amongst the rubble with the camera swooping over what looks like a war zone (the start of gentrification folks) which naturally follows a wrecking-ball that’s clearing the “slums” to make space for what will become the construction of Lincoln Center. This is the setting of a turf battle between the film’s Puerto Rican and white teenagers (the Jets and the Sharks), all of them poor and tragically all in the same pitiful situation.
The Jets kick off the aggression by painting over the mural of a Puerto Rican flag, an important symbol for this community since it was illegal to use and display the Puerto Rican flag. It was outlawed and the only flags permitted to be flown in Puerto Rico were the Spanish flag (1492 to 1898) and the American flag (1898 to 1952). So now you have the context as to why the group of Puerto Ricans took this act so hard. The music used to express their frustration and to muster their courage to “fight” is a classic—“Jet Song” (“When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way…”). The song still gets the same emotional flow and choreographer, Justin Peck, builds on the rhythm of Jerome Robbins’ original dances. The film looks beautiful which isn’t a surprise since it’s the work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It’s a visual treat as we glide through the city streets with the kids and their ’50s mentality.
Riff, the leader of the Jets (Mike Faist) is a determined kid dealing with swirling changes around his world, while Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks is dealing with immigrant problems that impact his day to day life, and that of his family.
America is a racist place then and now. And for the Puerto Rican community that racial antagonism was something that the community faced daily.
But the music of“West Side Story” is what has crafted this into a timeless classic, and with the updated script by Kushner, we get to understand more of the key character’s backstory.
At the high-school dance where Tony (white) first lays eyes on Maria (Rachel Zegler), the girl who will smash away any residual of gang loyalty he might still have, we all feel that bolt of “love” or rather the call that fate has made, and that you must answer. We all know how this ends so when listening to the song “Maria,” we get all those “feel good” chills and we too, like Tony, are transported, far-far away.
In the Oscar-winning 1961 film version (adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical) Maria was portrayed as an innocent virgin but this Maria (Rachel Zegler) has fire and a heart of a woman who knows what she doesn’t want. When Maria and Tony sing
“Tonight,” one of the most moving songs from “West Side Story,” the song gets a visual update and it works. This love is hope and we understand that feeling.
Musically “West Side Story” has some of the greatest (and singable) collection of songs in any American musical, composed by the great Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim; a classic that pulls at the heartstrings, gently and with love.
Now to the logic or rather the illogical choices made by the key characters, things that didn’t make sense then, still don’t make sense today. I offer the fight that sets the entire story moving. I’ve never co-signed that Tony would murder anyone. He’s a lover, not a fighter. And let’s not forget that Maria only stays furious with him murdering her Puerto Rican brother for about six minutes and a few seconds (white folks don’t know anything about how our heart beats). Is this an unconscious racist element or another sign of entitlement that is inherited with being white in America?
Let’s step into the subtext a bit more. It’s like saying that Bernardo, being a Latino man, his life isn’t worth as much as a white man’s life. Most folks think that “West Side Story” leans into Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” which was also about intolerance.
The new version solves none of these problems but (again) Kushner has enriched the script and I don’t want to spoil those important touches.
Now to the big question, should you invest your money and time into going into the theaters to see “West Side Story”? The answer is why not? You will be delighted with the music and keep the spirit going with songs like “One Hand, One Heart,” and
“Gee, Officer Krupke,” which is now set inside a police station. Now to one of the best characters ever written: Anita (Ariana DeBose) who is a straight-up force of nature, which was originally played by another, force of nature, the living legend Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original film, here she plays Valentina, widow of the soda-shop owner Doc. Now 89-years-young, Moreno steals every scene she’s in, and her version of “Somewhere” is worth the price of the movie ticket.
“West Side Story” is a lot of fun with a new determination to help us look deeper into racism and all the other ugly attachments that go along with intolerance.