Bear’s Haiku Movie Review/Commentary: West Side Story

Musical tries to not be
Serious subjects, light songs
Needs to pick a lane

That’s how I usually write my movie reviews, in haiku form. I write and talk so much elsewhere about music that I really feel it best to keep my movie criticism short. It’s not my specialty so, you know, leave it to the specialists. But- I do write about music and I have thoughts…

You can’t talk about Spielberg’s West Side Story without talking about the original. But I am going to try and avoid that as much as possible. I will say when I saw the original in high school after we had read Romeo and Juliet, I was less appalled by the darkening of the faces of Rita Moreno and others and MORE appalled that they did not darken Natalie Wood as well. At the time I thought, What is so special about Natalie Wood? Yeah, the offensive makeup jobs shouldn’t have happened at all. But it is a product of it’s time that without it we wouldn’t be discussing this new iteration.

I liked the new take just fine. Many of the musical numbers are as fresh, fun, and fantastic and they have always been. The showstopping “America” does the job in 2021 and stays with you long after other musical numbers have come and gone. And honestly you almost feel like this is Anita’s story more so than Maria & Tony’s. Equally exciting is the school dance with it’s crazy time signatures and fiery interplay between the Jets and Sharks. However noticeably here the women on occasion try to break up the oncoming fights. In other iterations they merely try to out dance each other.

Problems arise for me though when the musical feels like it wants to be taken seriously solely as a movie (not as a movie-musical). There are no stylized sets here or theatrical lighting. It is literally the ghetto with rundown buildings, rubble, litter… It is populated and lived in with crowds and residents. And well, that doesn’t work for me in a musical, personally. Because if some people break into song, then why isn’t EVERYONE in town breaking into song.

Also, when fitting all that into literal shops and streets with people on their way to work I begin to wonder, Why don’t these passersby have looks of shock with people breaking into song? A musical can have too many people in it. This is not a problem on stage because you have limited space and cast. But in a movie musical all bets are off. And so there has to be a balance.

Musicals like Singing In The Rain or even The Sound Of Music seem to occupy their own universe and are not of this earth. And so the characters can get away such silly things like dancing on sofas and twirling on hillsides. They are not trying to present reality. The recent musical-bio, Rocket Man seemed to mostly avoid this by creating a more dreamlike space to the bio-musical. And it felt like its own universe, the Elton John Universe. Even the original West Side Story film seemed to be an alternate New York where the citizens did break into song as part of their existence. It was so stylized that it felt like a movie musical not a message movie trying to be a musical.

Also there were a few points in the new adaptation where the film seemed to wink at the audience and say, “Hey, I know I’m a musical. Here’s the next song.” When the Jets are locked up at police station and break into, “Officer Krupke” the secretary is in the adjacent room and gives the boys a slight look of disdain. As if she is saying, “Here they go again breaking into song, those goofy kids”. It just made me too aware of the fact it was a musical. There were a few other instances early on that felt a little in on the joke but I can’t remember them now.

The cinematography is STELLAR. There are some amazing crane shots and swoops and well again, it made me feel like the piece was trying too hard to be cinematic or be a blockbuster instead of just a musical. And maybe this is the direction modern musicals have taken. Thankfully Tony Kushner was on hand to somewhat reign it in. Another track modern movie musicals seem to take is speaking the lyrics as if it is dialogue and not song. But it is not dialogue – it is song lyrics. I kind of hate that, just sing, damn it.

I saw West Side Story at the ever glamorous Castro Theater full of people who loved every second, many with ripe nostalgia flashbacks to the 1960s version of their youth. So I imagine the ovations were probably in part what the musical meant back then and of course for the legacy of Rita Moreno who was on had for a Q&A.

Another example of the movie trying to be more literal in a musical is at the end of the film’s opening rumble. There is a scene where an officer pulls a nail from one of the Jets ears trying to get him to name names. The violence, while much of it choreographed dancing, was also clearly intended to have weight and be, well, violent. Real chains and bats and blood. As if to show this is really how things went down with gangs in the 50s. Except the gangs never did ballet in the streets. They did however just beat each other up, sometimes to death. And when this film tries to have it both ways, it misses for me.

Another scene that missed for me is a vital one. The assault by the Jets on Anita that leads to the films tragic end. When it goes down in Valentina’s store Riff’s girlfriend, Velma, is present and originally angry and upset at Anita and the Puerto Ricans. But as the boys get more aggressive, she starts to protest their actions. They get more carnal before she is dragged out the door and out of the way. I thought to myself, in the 1950s there was no “sisterhood.”

It cheapens the real racism present at the time. One would hope humanity would prevail (and maybe that was the point, inserting modern hope) but having heard stories from the elders of varying backgrounds racism won out almost every time. So that felt false. Also, having another female present for the scene made the whole scene feel less dangerous. It wasn’t just male wolves like in the stage version or the 1961 film.

The other noticeable addition here is how political the film gets on certain subjects like economics and gentrification. I didn’t mind their inclusion but it didn’t really add much and honestly were not really very deeply explored in any way that mattered.

OK, but this is starting to look like a negative review as opposed a middle of the road recount. All my quibbles, while prominent in this review, are actually minor quibbles. My biggest quibble is Ansel Elgort as Tony just had nothing, he was flat, bland and exuded none of the puppy love excitement that young love brings or this role requires. And his singing was the weakest. “Something’s Coming”, was rendered almost lifeless to me, and after “Cool” it is my favorite song in the show so I was really crossing my fingers. But it felt here a little to like a Disney princess song in all the worst ways.

That aside, the film’s strongest point is the music, for the music still shines even when the vocals or choreography don’t. And when the two come together as they do in “America”, where Anita and company take over the streets, I felt myself wanting to immediately get back into the dance classes I let slip away in my 20s. This one piece and its themes practically trumps the core Shakespearean love story. And it really reminds one of what the “American Dream” is all about. And it isn’t a house or cars or money but possibility and hope for something better than before.

And while this film may not be better than before, it is not worse, just different. You can definitely feel Spielberg’s passion in every second of this. It’s well known it was his pet project. The one he’s wanted to do since he first heard the music as a kid. And I think his background in some of the greatest blockbusters of all time both helped and hindered this project. Some credit must be given to Tony Kushner who has direct links to musical theater for keeping it from going full Jurassic Park. And again, with Bernstein on the music and Sondheim on lyrics you can be sure, “Somethin’s coming, something good” and there is still a chance for things to be better than the last time.

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