West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021)

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s updating of the classic musical is just an elgort away from greatness. They make a number of changes to the script and song order, all in the interest of bringing what was, in the Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins film version a hallucinatory vision of Romeo & Juliet set less in the decaying remains of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood than in the midst of the color red. The 1961 film is musical above all else, Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics more alive than almost any of the characters, given physical expression in Robbins’s balletic choreography and the bodies of ridiculously beautiful, yet generally ethnically inappropriate, actors. The ’61 film is about the fact that red is the color of blood as much as it is of romance. It’s as abstract and poetic as a mainstream Hollywood production would ever get.

But Spielberg and Kushner are less interested in poetry and, sadly, less interested in the color red. Their West Side Story takes pains to situate its melodrama in an actual time and place—the same time and place as the ’61 film, but more so. Which is one of the strange things about it: while the original was shot among the real ruins of the West Side, but felt imaginary; the remake is in a constructed space (how much is actual and how much computerized, I can’t tell), but feels real. The commitment to realism (such as it is) extends not just to casting (with white people thankfully only playing white people this time) but character as well, building backstories for each of the major characters, fleshing out what had been archetypal figures transmuted from Shakespeare into the present. Justin Peck’s choreography builds on Robbins’s work, but adds a more authentically Latin style to the gangland ballets. The “America” number in particular benefits from this, and its restaging: instead of a rooftop at night, the sequence now takes place in the bright daytime out in the open streets, passersby of all ethnicities joining in the joyous yet darkly comic celebration/indictment of the nation.

Several of the songs have been moved around. “I Feel Pretty” gains an unexpected poignance from its repositioning, while “Somewhere” takes on entirely new resonances. Instead of a duet between Tony and Maria, it’s now sung by Rita Moreno as Valentina (the Puerto Rican widow of Doc the druggist, the film’s only other example of an interracial couple). Moreno of course was in the original film, winning the Supporting Actress Oscar as Anita. “Somewhere” in the original is a romantic ballad, the two lovers imagining a world where they can be happy together, outside the prejudices of the real world. With Valentina/Moreno singing it, it’s a lament for society as a whole, its dream of unity not individualized in the two lovers, but a wistful hope for all of humanity. That metaphor of course was always there in the original, but the new film makes it the primary text, rather than the romance. And the fact that it’s Moreno singing it, a song of hope from 50 years ago that’s just as relevant today as it was then, makes it all the more tragic. Given the way Spielberg frames it, Valentina singing while looking at an old photo of her and Doc, one can imagine it being the lost dream of her youth as well, just as it now is for Tony and Maria. It’s now more than 50 years since the film was set, maybe another 50 since that photo was taken, and things don’t seem to have changed much at all.

And still, there’s a gaping hole in the film where Tony should be. Every other actor is tremendous—David Alvarez as Bernardo, Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rachel Zegler as Maria are tremendous, terrific singers and dancers who sell every big emotion the musical demands. Ansel Elgort, though, as Tony, is quite tall. Like so many young American movie stars, he looks soft, like he hasn’t worked a day in his life, let alone spent the last year in jail. He gives Tony a kind of naive innocence that’s incompatible with his backstory: he should be broken-down by guilt and depression over his violent past, only brought back to life and hope by Maria. He should also be believably charismatic and tough, the kind of guy the Jets, grungy violent men who’ve only known abuse and crime at home and from the world around them, would follow anywhere (except, of course, to peace). Elgort is. . . not. And, worst of all, his voice seems weak, easily overpowered by everyone else in the cast (note the “Tonight (Quintet)” when Elgort can’t hope to stay on equal footing with the other singers, turning it into more of a Quart-and-a -Half-tet), conveying none of the strength you want from a romantic or heroic lead.

But still, Tony has always been a bit of a blank (as so many male leads are in musicals), and his performance isn’t nearly enough to sink what is in every other respect a great film. Spielberg may not give us the reds I loved so much, restricting his palette for the most part to the various shades of gray that pass for color cinematography these days. The reds do show up in key places: Maria’s lipstick before the party, the lining of Anita’s dress during “America”. But this is a world defined not be an all-consuming, self-destructive passion, but by the brick and concrete ruins these desperate people are forced to fight over because they’re the only America they’ve ever known. 

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