Same story, new version.
Same issues, new vision.
Same gun, new vibes.
Steven Spielberg’s first musical, “West Side Story,” is a bold, brave and beguiling film, for a new generation of viewers, most of whom have not seen the glorious and gutsy landmark version directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The original earned 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1961.
A tough act to follow for director Spielberg, who has wanted to do a musical to complete his filmography.
This is it. And it becomes a dandy companion – then and now – to the legacy that is “West Side Story.”
Spielberg’s version has the vitality like the Wise-Robbins one. And clearly, if you favored the first one, the latest might be second fiddle.
Spielberg embraces shadows galore in mounting this monument. From the dark tones of the opening sequence through the end credits, shadows become part of the mobility of the storytelling. One of the best incidence of shadow supremacy is the scene where the Jets and the Sharks prepare to rumble and challenge each other, and you see slowly moving elongated shadows of the duelers marching forward to each other. It’s a haunting form of choreography.
With a script by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), Spielberg manages to make everything and everyone sing and dance, and the words and movements reinforce and reflect on the original source of this creation.Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet tragedy ratchets up to contemporary sensitivities for a powerful exclamation point in filmmaking. Riveting!
Tony (Ansel Elgort, a tall dude with a decent voice, with a younger Tom Cruise demeanor), is a former Jet gang leader now anti-feuding after a stay in prison for nearly killing a rival gang member. He falls for Maria (Rachel Zegler, a charming lark of a find, in her film debut) in the shadows of gym seating and tenement stairs.
It’s all part of the recipe, to coo and sing the romantic “Tonight” together and with overlapping gang foretelling violence, right down to the “Somewhere” death scene inspiring unity.
Filmdom’s original Oscar-winning Anita (Rita Moreno, still a scene-stealer) could be a contender again, for her custom-made new supporting role of Valentina, Doc’s widow. She’s seasoned and glowing; even sings “Somewhere” before the climactic version later. Her presence likely will overshadow the new Anita (Ariana DeBose, who can’t be discounted at awards time), despite a vibrant “America” performance.
Bernardo (David Alvarez) and Riff (Mike Faist) are the rival gang leaders, and only time will tell if they match up to the popularity of the George Chakiris or Russ Tamblyn.
The good news is that everyone sings (remember when Natalie Wood was merely mouthing the lyrics while Marni Nixon did the dubbing?) and everyone dances; the massive street leaping and twirling resembles the scope and sensation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” which might be interpreted as “Upper West Side Story” with its Washington Heights origins. The newbie is set in the current Lincoln Center ‘hood, where the gangs not only battle each other but question the reality of urban development, hence the fight turfs of abandoned buildings and hills of dirt.
For the record, Robbins’ original choreography is credited here, along with inventive and vivid new choreography by Janusz Kaminski.
Leonard Bernstein’s music and the late Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are intact and rightfully acknowledged. The finger-snapping and toe-tapping might be new, but the melodies are like the Mona Lisa. Classics cannot be improved.
With the sorrowful windup, where Tony’s body is solemnly removed from the street, hope looms. The Jets and Sharks unite in grief, though issues still resonate,
Verdict: Racism. Violence. Gun control. Still a question mark. …
And that’s Show Biz. …