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Did Steven Spielberg Just Ruin West Side Story?

Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s 1961 adaptation of the Broadway musical West Side Story embraced fantasy and ended up making a Hollywood classic. But Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s remake brings the larger-than-life story of doomed lovers down to earth — and sinks.

West Side Story is one of those remakes that nobody ever wanted or expected to get. (20th Century Studios)

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is such a flop that it’s inspiring many thoughtful pieces in a variety of publications. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal cogitates upon this public rejection of what critics are calling a masterpiece, and decides that the reason for it is Americans’ embrace online streaming at home as the preferred way to see movies:

Mr. Spielberg plus great old American film should equal huge blockbuster. “West Side Story’s” unsuccessful release tells us that we have undergone a fundamental shift in how we watch movies in America.

Others mourn that it represents a more specific rejection of the film musical, after In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and now West Side Story have bombed, making this “a catastrophic year for a genre that has been a mainstay of cinema since the advent of talkies.”

Well, not really. Film musicals started failing dismally with the collapse of the studio system in the late 1960s and, other than a few bright spots over the decades, have never recovered their former popularity. The stage musical and the animated film musical continue to be popular, while live-action film musicals are risky. The few that get made tank more often than not.

Those reasons may be part of the nonevent that the new West Side Story has turned out to be, but another obvious reason is the most specific one of all — that even with a talented cast and Spielberg’s usual technical expertise, it’s still regarded by the public as, at best, an uninteresting project, and, at worst, a flaming sack of shit thrown on our doorsteps during the holidays, when we’re hoping for a couple of nice presents instead.

It’s one of those remakes that nobody ever wanted or expected to get. Robert Wise’s 1961 film version of West Side Story was a huge cultural phenomenon in its day, and it’s still a powerful film. But it’s very much of its time, both in its long-gone artistry and its representation of what a plea for racial tolerance looks like circa 1957, when the original stage version premiered.

Famously based on Romeo and Juliet, this tale of rival street gangs driven to deadlier violence by the forbidden interracial love that breaks out in their midst between a white, Jet-affiliated boy named Tony and a Puerto Rican, Shark-affiliated girl named Maria has by now been screened all over the world, performed in a million high schools, and spoofed in a hundred sitcoms and YouTube videos.

Attempts to update the material by getting rid of certain highly problematic elements can’t make it seem newly or differently pertinent in a way that drives people to the theater. A ton of publicity has been done to assure everyone that, in this new version, there’s no brown makeup slathered over the actors playing the Puerto Rican street gang the Sharks, as in the 1961 film. (And, unlike the original, there’s no brassy yellow and orange hair dye for at least half the actors playing the white street gang, the Irish-Polish-Italian-descended Jets.)

Spielberg’s cast of Sharks are all played by actual Puerto Ricans, and the skin tones we see are their own. Whereas out of the 1961 cast, only Rita Moreno as Anita was actually Puerto Rican. Moreno actually wound up informally coaching a number of the other actors in their accents, but to no avail — Natalie Wood, a Russian American playing Maria, and George Chakiris, a Greek American playing Bernardo, are frequently scorned today for their phony accents.

(20th Century Studios)

But Spielberg’s attempts at greater cultural and historical accuracy don’t change the fundamentally stylized nature of the material itself, and he does an awkward job of combining these qualities. Even gritty location shooting, as in the opening of the 1961 version, doesn’t change the fact that it’s a musical, and some aspect of the fantastical has to be embraced. The expressionist color-coding of the 1961 clothing and lighting effects have a heightened emotional impact with the Jets’ blues, golds, and earth tones contending against the Sharks’ reds, purples, yellows, and pinks, often against agitating hot-red backdrops. Spielberg opts instead, overall, for the desaturated muting of color, which has stood for dystopian realism in movies for decades now.

But Spielberg makes a few good moves in this adaptation. At least he didn’t pull a La La Land and star people who can’t even sing and dance, a distressing Hollywood tendency since the 1960s, when big stars demonstrated their absolute lack of musical talent in horrors like Paint Your Wagon (1969), with Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jean Seberg, and At Long Last Love (1975), with Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd. It seems as if Spielberg hired all performers who could actually perform, which is, or should be, an absolute requirement in any musical. The leads are all talented: Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) as Tony, newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ariana DeBose as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo, and Mike Faist as Riff.

But beyond that, the choices made by the frequent Spielberg collaborator playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich) are dubious, adding extra plot, extra character backgrounds, extra explanatory narrative in general, almost all of which seems motivated by anxiety about cultural sensitivity and assumptions about the audience’s inability to “get it” without remedial help. You can trace the course of our current cultural fears and stupidities from scene to scene.

Here’s my favorite example of idiocy in screenwriting. There’s a gratuitous new scene featuring Riff buying a gun before the climactic fight between the warring gangs. It’s a gun that will eventually wind up in the hands of the vengeful Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), the young man chosen by Maria’s family to be her prospective husband. The scene is quite long, with distracting emphasis on the gun sellers — a world-weary older black man and an Irishman so extremely tough-Irish in his speech and manner that he seems to have wandered in from a film about the IRA. You’re given plenty of time to wonder what the point is. After all, in the 1961 film version, the gun is handled in one line of dialogue, which goes something like this: “Chino’s after Tony, and he’s got a gun.” No one since the play first opened in 1957 has ever wondered how Chino got his hands on a gun. This is America, after all, and guns have always been pretty obtainable.

The scene presumably wants to add emphasis to the perilous escalation represented by bringing a gun to a fistfight. So, essentially, Kushner and Spielberg stop the whole damn movie to do a PSA about the dangers of gun violence. As if a movie that’s already dealing with gang violence, racism, xenophobia, and corrupt and abusive policing needs a few more topical messages.

We’re in a real PSA era of filmmaking right now, and Spielberg’s West Side Story is rife with them. It starts in the opening sequence with 1950s-era gentrification being lamented. So instead of documentary-style helicopter shots of the island of Manhattan, as in the 1961 opening, gradually closing in on the once slummy streets of the West Side where the Jets and Sharks battle over a few rundown blocks of turf, Kushner and Spielberg focus on a bit of history they ran across in prepping the film — the very slums where the Sharks and Jets once had their fictional gang war actually got cleared for late ’50s “urban renewal” projects. So Spielberg sends his hypermobile camera through bulldozed rubble, including fallen, twisted fire escapes, arriving at a shot of a sign announcing the future site of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Eventually the Jets start popping up out of the rubble, and dancing around very crowded Manhattan streets. Soon you start wondering though where the Sharks are, because this is a two-gang picture, right? No. Kushner and Spielberg had another bright idea. The Jets are a gang, and they hate the Puerto Rican immigrants they regard as invaders, but, as Spielberg puts it, “the Sharks don’t hate the Jets. The Sharks are putting up with the Jets. They’re tolerating the Jets.”

Baffling, because why wouldn’t the Sharks hate the Jets who are constantly attacking them, and why wouldn’t they form a rival gang to protect their community, and in doing so counter the corrupt, racist policing in the area that never offers them any protection?

But only at the very end of the long sequence, when the Jets are starting to deface a mural of the Puerto Rican flag, do the Sharks suddenly emerge, all rushing from their various jobs, still wearing their work clothes, coveralls, and aprons, to defend their flag. There’s a commitment in this film not only to casting Puerto Rican actors to play Puerto Rican characters, and to having a certain amount of Spanish dialogue spoken without subtitles, but also to making sure all these characters are shown to be “productive citizens,” all with jobs and areas of study and big career plans and confidently planned bright futures.

As Spielberg insists, whereas the Jets are “fourth-generation white immigrants, pretty much from dysfunctional families, many of them homeless, and many of them who are sticking together because that’s the only family they got,” the Sharks are

these migrants from Puerto Rico who are chasing the American dream, and they’ve all got jobs, they’re all working people. Anita’s got a job, Bernardo’s got a job. He’s a boxer, but they all work. Chino works. He’s got a trajectory to success in his life.

In short, the Jets are the street gang — loitering, stealing, intimidating the locals, and patrolling their turf. But unlike in the 1961 film’s opening scene, they don’t have increasingly violent encounters with the rival gang, the Sharks, because the Sharks are all super tolerant, plus they’re at work, see.

It’s news to me that you can even have a gang if all the members are at work all day. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t people join gangs because they’re denied opportunities to get jobs and make a decent living, being mired in terrible living conditions? I mean, I assume people don’t join gangs because they offer bright futures.

This attempt at a misfired and misguided realism brings with it a sad literal-mindedness that drags the entire film down. You can easily trace in all of Kushner and Spielberg’s solutions what they consider to be problems in the original play and 1961 film. For example, if Tony is disaffected from his old gang, the Jets, yet he’s still going to wind up killing somebody at the rumble, he’s gotta be given further backstory in the new version so everyone can connect the dots from nice non-gang guy to killer. So here they give him a prison record — he’s just done a year for assault after nearly murdering somebody in an earlier gang fight. The terms of his parole mandate that he can’t hang around with gang members, which is why he’s avoiding the Jets.

But when he gets drawn in anyway, trying to stop the rumble with the Sharks, his old propensity for violence returns with fatal consequences. Of course, that creates a new problem thematically. In the old material, having the sweetest, least violent guy stab and kill someone is important, because it shows that anyone can be swept up in the adrenaline rush created by fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when there are weapons involved.

It’s clear Kushner and Spielberg wanted Tony and all the other gang members toughened up, which probably had something to do with the innumerable comic spoofs of the 1961 West Side Story. The focus of these spoofs is always how cute and nonthreatening these gang members look, all baby-faced with neat, slicked-back hair and nicely fitting ’50s clothes. And on top of that, they’re snapping their fingers and singing and dancing — and the dancing, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is balletic. Nothing, it seems, kicks off a tidal wave of jokey squeamishness like a bunch of gang members doing high pointed-toe kicks and leaps and twirls as a way of representing street intimidation and violent conflict.

Personally, I love the Robbins choreography, which helped define the stage show and was then perfected for the 1961 film, which Robbins codirected with Robert Wise. I love the moment when the Jets, stalking through their neighborhood with people nervously falling back to create a wide, unimpeded path for them, take those first triumphant, space-clearing dance steps out into the street.

So naturally, Spielberg gets rid of all that, especially all those supposedly girlie ballet moves. Choreographer Justin Peck is brought on instead, another bright boy full of literal-minded ideas like having the Jets throw macho mock punches as part of their dancing.

In order to bring Rita Moreno back, Kushner and Spielberg cast her as Valentina, the widow of the character of Doc in the original material, who ran the corner store where Tony works and where the gangs meet to plan the rumble. And everybody is glad to see Moreno, still looking wonderful and performing like a pro at ninety.

But now Valentina is given an expanded role, including songs, that play out a little oddly. In one scene, Tony sings “Something’s Coming,” which is all about his instinct that his life is about to be transformed, directly to Valentina while hanging around the corner store, a setting which doesn’t exactly convey the big, inchoate dreams of youth. (In the 1961 version, Tony sings it to the sky, to the whole mysterious world.)

Even more strangely, Valentina has been given the most beautiful song in the magnificent Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim score to sing: “Somewhere,” the crucial heartbreaker that made generations sob in theaters when Tony and Maria sang it. What makes the song so emotionally wrenching is the tragic irony of it, singing, “there’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us . . .” when it’s becoming very clear there is no place for them that they’ll ever reach together. It’s reprised as Tony is dying in Maria’s arms.

Valentina now sings a very muted version of the song by herself while sitting at a table in the corner store and thinking about various couples, who are shown in montage — Tony and Maria, Bernardo and Anita, the late Doc and Valentina, who are the model mixed-race couple in the area. This is perhaps the most surpassingly stupid of all the Kushner and Spielberg ideas on display, because it provides no big emotional crescendo. It doesn’t even make a lot of sense — after all, Valentina and Doc did find a place, right there in the otherwise racially divided neighborhood.

But why go on? The critics have already praised the remake to the skies, and the general public has already expressed a massive indifference to it. It’s mainly the tiny population of argumentative cinephiles who were even interested in comparing the 1961 and 2021 versions in the first place. And by now we’re all sick of it too.