Thursday, March 10, 2022

Musical Watch: West Side Story (2021)

Watched:  03/05/2021
Format:  Disney+
Viewing:  First
Director:  Steven Spielberg

We won't belabor you with the facts of the 1957 stage play or much about the original film.  There's an endless stream of media on the topic, and even last year we were treated to a lengthy special on the 1961 film reuniting Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn.

I know I was aware of West Side Story when my mom took me to see it as a play in a small, downtown theater in Austin's former warehouse district around 5th or 6th grade.  I don't remember much in the way of my impressions other than being shocked that our heroes didn't walk away into the sunset - unhappy endings were still a novelty at that point.

It's likely I saw at least part of the 1961 version when I was 14 and my English class covered Romeo and Juliet.  But I didn't see it in full til summer of 1992 when I was at a drama camp for 7 weeks.*  I very much remember crowding around the TV and the silence from a room full of 17-year-olds at the film's end.  And, of course, being told "no, the girl in purple is Rita Moreno."

Jamie brought with her a love of musicals, and so - over the years - we've watched West Side Story any number of times, listened to the soundtrack to the film, etc...  For as famous as the film is, and the play, likely due to the casting and staging, I can't recall anyone bringing it to Austin or local Austin groups performing the show - but it's also likely I've missed it five times over.  

I didn't groan or roll my eyes when I heard Spielberg was going to do West Side Story (2021).  He doesn't really take on projects unless he's got an idea for how this should work, and I knew he had nothing to prove or a reason for doing it unless he was planning to truly bring a movie to the screen with all the impact of the 1961 movie retrofitted for 2021.  

It was also an interesting choice for Spielberg in that I sometimes think the director who most resembles Spielberg's own career, who could do anything and nail it, but who is famous for a few, particular films, was Robert Wise, director of the 1961 film (alongside original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins).  

So.  How did it go?

Very well, beyond all reasonable expectations.

While I knew we'd get some tweaks, I was not at all anticipating that Spielberg would throw out the actual book of the musical in order to make sure this movie made sense to today's audience.  Frankly, the original show requires a priori knowledge or serious extrapolation about a place and time in New York's geography and history that this movie - expertly and seamlessly - provides in exposition so we get the context that the 1957 Manhattanites would have innately understood, or that 1961 audiences who were privvy to national conversations on immigration and juvenile delinquency would have had a better chance of simply knowing.  This movie doesn't put a name on it, but it gives hints as to the 1950's transformation of cities in the post WWII White Flight era, and certainly the urban renewal that shredded neighborhoods in NYC, eventually leading to the desolation of the 1970's.  

More important, rather than ensure the Puerto Rican cast was palatable to the assumed anglo-ness of the audience per 1961, the film opens the doors wide to the notion that the Puerto Rican characters are not going to be white actors in make-up (see: the 1961 film), and that the characters can be portrayed "more authentically".**  Whole conversations occur in Spanish, characters are not portrayed in quite the same flip manner.

Similarly, the Jets, a collection of ethnic white kids living in the slums and getting pushed to the margins, have a lot more expressly stated as being at stake - at least from their POV.  And a certain death-wish nihilism to their desire to fight the change by throwing fists.  

I think people forget that this grit was considered a big selling point of the original production.  Jerome Robbins' kinetic choreography was a translation of what he wanted the characters to express, but he wanted it in the form of ballet.  Spielberg has pivoted away from this take, knowing that 40 years of MTV have changed how the masses likely see dance sequences (of course, Jackson's Beat It was always a pastiche to West Side Story) and when they're appropriate and when they wouldn't work.

Recently I'd seen an interview with Hannah Waddingham opining that the problem with most modern musical films is that they try to just film the stage play, which doesn't necessarily translate the way directors hope.  Spielberg is making a movie here, and there's no sequence that let's you know that more than America, where he takes the action from a post-dance rooftop party and moves it into the mid-morning streets of Manhattan.

It's enough that Ariana DeBose (sure to become a *thing* on the other side of this movie) kills a number that was pioneered by first Chita Rivera on stage and then made a star out of Rita Moreno.  If you felt bad for the guy stepping into Harrison Ford's shoes on the Solo movie, imagine having two Harrison Fords out front.  But DeBose's dancing becomes a massive, street-wide number, enhanced with excellent DP work and fresh choreography (that wound up in a lot of the marketing materials).  Spielberg was not just setting up a staged version - he went full Spielberg on this. It's astonishing movie-making.

Jamie tells me that the movie also reshuffles the numbers back to an order closer to the Broadway show, and while it threw me off, I felt like the overall arc of the characters was enhanced and felt more natural.  Look, I like the version of Cool in the parking garage in 1961 version, but as a prelude to the rumble, as a pleading from Tony and attempt to stop the violence, it performs a number of narrative and character functions that the original film never addresses.  The original leaves Tony a bystander who has minimal impact until its too late.

I also preferred the "wedding" sequence far more in context of the new film.

Look, as great as I found Ariana DeBose, she's had years on Broadway and played a part in Hamilton.  Maybe not a lead, but she was on her way up (and well, well deserved).  But Rachel Zegler as Maria is everything you sorta wished Natalie Wood could have been in the original but... kinda was not.  Zegler's voice and talent is unmistakable, and her readiness for movie stardom obvious, but this was her first role, and it's mind-boggling.  She was literally a teen-ager who just finished high school doing stage plays.  We're so used to products of the Disney kid-talent pipeline, it's almost revelatory to see someone show up who doesn't have that weird sheen those kids have until they grow up and enough directors have worked it out of them (see:  Selena Gomez being awesome these days).    

Mike Faist's Riff is another surprise of the film - and not something I expected.  If you need insight into a churning pit of very recognizable white male anger, not yet metastasized but well on its way - Faist delivers, and he makes it make sense.  You may want to choke him (and the rest of the Jets) but you also know this poor bastard never had a chance, even when he was shown he could do better - he knows he won't, so all he can do is hold his ground til they take it from under him.

And, of course, the update of Anybodys (Iris Mensas) from tomboy to transgender, desperate to be one of the boys.  

Rita Moreno, still an absolute powerhouse, returns to the film as Doc's widow, Valentina.  And, jesus, if there was something in the film to make me cry, it was her character trying to deal with the absolute bullshit around her.  I did not see her getting Somewhere as a number, but it gutted me.

Anyway, I don't particularly want for me to have to cover everyone in a cast that was phenomenal (yes, yes... Ansel Elgort shocked the hell out of me).  

Mostly, I'd encourage you to give the movie a shot.  And to give musicals a shot.  Between this movie and In the Heights, we had two amazing films roll out this year, and while, yes, twitter will always find ways to snipe anything that's made, ever, both are worth watching and may have way more in common than you'd expect.  For all the griping about too many superhero films, you'd think moving in the opposite direction would hold some appeal - and I'm sorry, TV has taken over your thinky and quirky dramas, meldramas and polite comedies.  There are very real stories to be told, and where character, story and everything else is conveyed lyrically and with artistry.  

*nothing like 7 weeks of something - and only one thing -  to tell you "I am not qualified to do this for a living", and saved myself probably at least a year of college that it would have taken me to sort out that I can't act and I didn't feel like putting on plays for a living forever

**that's a pit of quicksand for a dude who is not Puerto Rican, does not exist in 1957, etc... to throw on the table.  But I'm going to trust that Spielberg and Co. did their homework.


Steven said...

Ariana duBose was also my favorite (only) liked thing about "Schmigadoon."

And even better, she knows how to keep cool when affronted by a manager at the Texarkana, Texas Longonhorn Stakehouse's tendency to say "LUR."

The League said...

off topic, but that was one of the most baffling sketches I've seen on SNL in years. It was one of those rare times where I was like "I am sure there's a joke or reference here, but I have absolutely no idea what is happening". Kind of like pretty much every sketch about tiktok.

RHPT said...

Ariana duBose was just cast in the Kraven the Hunter movie.

Groboclown said...

I still remember from time to time watching that stage production of West Side Story with you, Ryan. It was my first time at a live production and didn't realize that singing "We Don't Need Another Hero" wasn't appropriate.

The League said...

Randy - glad to hear there's more Ariana DuBose en route.

Matt - I very much remember that moment and the silent terror of the moment. This is how we grow and learn!