“West Side Story”: The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Anita and Bernardo

West Side Story!

Ariana DeBose steps into Rita Moreno’s shoes and dashes away with them as the new Anita.

It’s extremely rare nowadays for me to watch films I’ve already seen, but last week on a staycation whim I revisited the original West Side Story, which I have on DVD and my wife remembers me liking when we watched it together sixteen years ago. Maybe it gave me the impression this was the essence of Real Broadway. At the time we had little frame of reference, years before we had the opportunities to see actual Broadway shows in 2011 and in 2016. I’d forgotten much of it till I cued it up. The lyrical verve and the intricate dance numbers certainly struck old chords, as did Rita Moreno’s performance, far and away the best among the cast. Beyond that, the enchantments from my first time seemed a little faded. The Happy Days hoodlums and their 1960s color schemes held my attention for a bit, and some songs drew me back in when my eyes wandered to other gadgets (“America” and “Officer Krupke” are each satirical exemplars), but…I dunno. It was still fine? It’s creaky compared unfairly to a 21st-century stage production, but I guess I still get it? Setting aside the problematic aspects a thousand better websites have already covered?

I was not among the front lines of any protests insisting a remake was unnecessary or pointless. Every classic Broadway show has its revivals, often with revisions and updates for later generations with differing sensibilities. Why not this one? And why not let lifelong fan Steven Spielberg take a crack at it? Especially teamed up with his Oscar-winning Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner, the main behind the acclaimed Angels in America? Again, setting aside the problematic aspects a thousand better websites have already covered? And which Kushner acknowledged in a fascinating New York Times interview with film critic A.O. Scott? Why not? If nothing else, it diverted his attention away from potentially worse project choices like Ready Player Two.

Normally this is the part where I recap for readers who have no idea what I’m talking about and couldn’t be bothered to watch the trailers. Is that really necessary here? Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story once again tells a tale of star-crossed lovers from different cliques — families, gangs, avo-CAY-do, avo-CAH-do — who are ultimately doomed because their true love cannot overcome the differences between their backgrounds or the destructive power of stupid misunderstandings caused by other people’s mistakes and/or sins.

The setting remains the Upper West Side of 1950s Manhattan, this time more visibly rooted in a true historical point when entire lower-class neighborhoods were being demolished and replaced by classier joints like, irony of ironies, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The original static logo overture is replaced by a continuous overhead shot of multiple city blocks pulverized into fields of rubble, traces of foundations, looming wrecking balls, discarded appliances and other former possessions of the unlucky but insufficiently impressive citizens chased away by the forces of gentrification. The remains of their little piece of home are now just litter from yet another parade of tribes displaced by The Man.

(Admittedly I smirked a little, thanks to 2020’s The 40-Year-Old Version and its lacerating send-up of white audiences’ cravings for “poverty porn” and fables about gentrification. For this tale the recontextualization isn’t exactly a stretch, but still.)

Once again the neighborhood is ostensibly subject to territorial dispute. The Jets and the Sharks are at it, same as they ever were. It’s the proudly bitter descendants of the long-dwelling white guys who never chased their dreams to another ZIP code versus the Puerto Rican newcomers who chased the American dream to a place that looked spacious enough for everyone and seemed like an upgrade from their hometowns (or not, depending on which “America” side they choose), but now find themselves wasting time and energy on self-defense.

Caught in the middle are Tony and Maria, who we’re told are our primary protagonists even though they’re hardly the most intriguing characters. Rachel Zegler, a YouTuber who’s scheduled to appear next in the Shazam! sequel, acquits herself nicely as Maria (and sings her own songs, unlike some Marias), but then there’s Tony, now played by Ansel Elgort, the ruiner of Baby Driver. Tony, an ex-con who’s walked away from gangster life, takes about an hour to wake up and finally emote with real conviction instead of telling us he’s emoting as we stare helplessly into his dead unmagicked-snowman eyes. Their obligatory meet-cute is all setup and virtually no endearment, except the part where he’s over a foot taller than she is. Longtime MCC readers know I can relate. I awarded them a point for that, but I have no clue what she sees in him. (Then again, don’t we all know a couple who confounds us like that?)

Alas, their instant true love, which blossoms from nothingness like a silent Big Bang in a vacuum, can never be realized as long as the Jets and the Sharks remain at loggerheads, and each remains beholden to their respective leaders. In the Jets’ corner stands Riff (Tony nominee Mike Faist from Broadway’s original Dear Evan Hansen), wiry and venomous and swearing, “It’s not about race, it’s about territory!” Because the more your turf dwindles, the scrappier you get about what little is left. In the Sharks’ corner is Bernardo (Tony co-winner David Alvarez from Broadway’s original Billy Elliott), who won’t back down from a challenge but admits that Riff’s idea of one great big rumble, while tempting, may pose a scheduling problem for his team “because we have jobs.” SUCK IT, RIFF.

While Bernardo forbids his sister Maria from dating Kid Lurch, Riff is keen to goad Tony out of gang retirement so he can make a comeback as their rumble MVP. Can true love prevail when things get stabby? Well…duh, no. West Side Story may have a lower body count than Romeo & Juliet, but it’s no less a tragedy, and neither Spielberg nor Kushner took the job for the sake of slapping together a cheap happy ending in which the day is saved thanks to Ansel Elgort.

To Spielberg’s credit, the new settings are far more realistic, grimier and less reliant on Seussian garishness. Even as his army of cranes swoop and swivel around and through the environs (up to and including the final scene’s lineup of non-Hollywood cranes), everything’s harsher and starker as viewed through the lenses of two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (both for Spielberg films, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). In particular the big rumble, held in a dim warehouse filled with salt mounds reserved for clearing winter roads, is an amazingly lit and choreographed set piece. The fights in general are more brutal to the extent that PG-13 permits, the savage blows landing with harder-hitting thumps and cracks rather than combatants weaving around each other in symbolic gang-fight ballets. Blood flows freely and in ugly fashion.

Those who attend strictly for the music will be less repulsed. Not only did Spielberg & co. use all the same songs — nary a single new tune pandering for a Best Original Song nomination — they even reused Leonard Bernstein’s original score (complete with official “Score By” credit), albeit re-recorded by the NY and LA Philharmonics. The numbers have been shuffled around a bit, but they’re largely all there. The dysfunctional wild ride of “Officer Krupke” is relocated inside police HQ so the Jets can trash the place while they’re singing and dancing about society’s cheap rationalizations for their sins. “America” descends from the rooftops to the streets, where the film comes closest to matching the watchmaker-precision ensemble bravura of the year’s other big wide-release live-action musical, In the Heights.

The weirdest change to me was moving “I Feel Pretty” to after the rumble, so Maria and co. are singing happily while totally unaware of the dual murders and the audience’s shock. Also, instead of in a dingy apartment, it’s set in the upscale department store where Maria and friends work as cleaners, which seems awfully late in the film to finally check out workplace. (More than a few Latinx pundits have decried this demotion from her original, better job at the bridal shop, which they felt was more in line with Puerto Rican contributions to the garment industry. It’s a fair criticism.)

Some fuss has been made about the use of Spanish without subtitles, which might be a valid knock if Kushner were writing ten-page speeches’ worth, or if all the best dialogue was in Spanish while the English bits were intentionally the most tedious. I took German in school, which comes in handy every time yet another WWII drama or Holocaust documentary is up for awards, and yet I was perfectly okay. The scenes work, as you really do get the emotional gist of what’s going on (kind of like a well-acted silent film). It’s also tremendous fun watching characters sniping at each other that they need to practice their English more, so sometimes they’re switching back and forth within the same scene from English to Spanish to Spanglish and back again. (If anything, I was more jarred by the handful of PG cuss-words added as part of the screenplay’s cultural modernization or whatever.)

Between the visuals and the enthusiastic cast, West Side Story is the most sincerely alive a Spielberg film has felt since at least Bridge of Spies, maybe even back to Munich. The escalating tensions between Bernardo and Riff, each charismatically stubborn in their own styles, are hypnotic in their own way. Even Maria’s would-be suitor Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) gets a much-needed upgrade, less hapless and more nervy as the dorky accounting student stung by rejection and dogged in his quest to get to the bottom of it all, hoping no one notices he’s left his bench on the sidelines.

But everyone pales before the new Anita, played by Ariana DeBose (Hamilton‘s original Bullet and costar of the Apple TV+ musical series Schmigadoon!). She’s a force of nature who commands every song she sings and any moment the cameras surround her, wins every debate, and lifts every dialogue exchange ten levels higher. I refuse to cite a “best scene”, but in particular her dynamics with her longtime boyfriend Bernardo are so marvelously charming — and he in turn rising to meet her — that I wish the narrative center had been shifted in their direction. It’d hardly be a radical Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead subversion. They were always at the heart of the story, but nudged off to one side while Tony and Maria hogged the spotlight because Shakespeare technically decreed it so, as if that part of his framework were most immutable above all others.

Perhaps inspired by their dedication and/or their plights, the surviving cast rises to the challenge of that inexorable conclusion, in which tragedy and anticlimax collide and this audience member may have gotten more than a bit, shall we say, caught up in it, despite himself and despite Ansel Elgort. Wars of class and race and turf lend themselves to a thousand socially trendy thinkpieces, but those can become minor considerations when one is in the emotional throes of true’s love last gasp, no matter how much we didn’t get it while they were both alive. But I’m pretty sure my tears were more for Anita and Bernardo.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The infamously unhelpful Officer Krupke is played by Broadway veteran Brian D’Arcy James, who was the least famous main character in Spotlight but whom viewers might know better today as Kate Bishop’s dead dad from TV’s Hawkeye.

As the main detective Lieutenant Schrank, Corey Stoll (Ant-Man, House of Cards) looks wrong with hair but is rather believable as a haggard adult who needs the kids to stop fighting over a neighborhood that’s about to disappear anyway. Schrank lectures each side for different reasons. To the ‘Ricans, he’s simply old-fashioned racist, but to the Jets he’s arguably crueler as he condescendingly points out that so many past immigrants (“Italians! Irish! Jews!”) managed to get out of NYC and buy nice houses and lives for themselves elsewhere, while the Jets are the kids and grandkids of the alcoholic losers who stayed trapped there by their own failures.

The most formidable familiar face of all is the esteemed veteran Rita Moreno (she just turned 90 last week!), who takes over Doc’s Drugstore as his widow. This shrewd reworking changes the tenor of a few key scenes in effective ways, especially in the scene where she lambastes the Jets after they attack Anita. Instead of Doc’s rant about juvenile delinquency, she reminds them she’s seen every single one of them growing up and knows them all by name, and it kills her that they’ve all grown up into “rapists”. It’s the film’s darkest point, at which the Broadway veneer blurs out of our sight and the reality of what they’ve just done falls upon them with a crushing weight.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the West Side Story end credits, but viewers are privy to Spielberg’s dedication: “For Dad.” Spielberg is also co-credited with the design of the end titles, still the multi-tasker after all these years.

2 responses

  1. Based on your review, I will see this movie. I watched the original a few months back and it seemed almost cartoonish. The music was still classic as well as the singing, but the film has not held up well over the years. Anything Spielberg touches turns to gold, so I look forward to this one.

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