The only question raised by the film is: why? Why remake a film, the one co-signed by director Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins according to the musical eponymous film which occupies such an indisputable and undisputed place? And why Spielberg?
We can of course think of the idea of taking advantage of the constant visibility of the show on stage with the world tours of a show that has never ceased to triumph on Broadway during its multiple covers. We can also assume that the director likes to play as a cinephile stylist with variations and footnotes of a reference work.
But, to attend the 2h37 of the screening of West Side Story 2021 (the same length as the 1961 film), it quickly appears an otherwise significant motivation.
The story, which takes the theme of Romeo and Juliet (later Tony and Maria) in New York City in the late 1950s, has not changed. The songs have not changed, although slightly rearranged by David Newman from the music of Leonard Bernstein, and without touching the words of Stephen Sondheim. Likewise, the choreographies have been revamped by Justin Peck without touching the spirit of those of Jerome Robbins.
The work of the screenwriter
All the work, very subtle, of the screenwriter and playwright Tony kushner (to whom we owe, in addition to the major piece that Angels in America, the screenplay for one of Spielberg’s best films, Munich), consists of introducing into the dialogues and the scenario elements which do not change the story but intensify certain elements.
These modifications place the story more in a social reality – always located at the same time – by making more present elements all already existing, but underlined under the influence of current issues, and the attention they now attract. The endemic racism of American society, and the extent of social and economic inequalities, are thus dramatized much more explicitly than in the original.
The dialogues and the staging also point to the generalized sexism, shown in partly different forms among the Latinos and among the little whites who make up the two clans that clash, or the use of firearms, especially among young people, thanks to a skilful diversion of the number danced and sung “Cool”, which goes from the leader of the Jets in the original version to the nice Tony, taking on another meaning.
Anita (Ariana DeBose) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) lead the dance of young Puerto Ricans in the streets of the West Side: under the joyful exuberance, the fighting for a place in the sun. | Twentieth century fox
Behind the scenes, but repeatedly, the film discusses the issues of identity and community, repeatedly insisting on the notion of territory, and on what defines membership, compatible or not, to several systems of reference – the American nation, skin color as others see it, language, geographic, personal or family origin, siblings – and “sorories” – given or constructed.
Catalog of America’s Problems
That is to say a fairly large catalog of the essential social problems of America today. We can add real estate speculation and gentrification – the West Side of the title, now known as Upper West Side, is shown as a slum area already half demolished by construction sites where an upscale neighborhood that includes the prestigious Lincoln Center will rise.
The Jets, with their leader, Riff, played by the impressive Mike Faist in the center. | Twentieth century fox
We must also count among the accentuations of this version the despair of the little Whites: the Jets gang is made up of teenagers from the descendants of impoverished immigrants of European origin, without a future. Today, they would be among those who attacked the Capitol in January 2021. Consumerism, praised by women in one of the flagship songs, “I Want to Live in America”, is shown more as a destructive illusion.
The phenomena of gangs, which of course already existed at the time when Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim wrote the text of the show for Broadway and when Ernest Lehman adapted it for the big screen, have today taken on a weight in the society of United States which gives a darker meaning to the rivalry between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Jets.
In the game of comparisons
In the game of comparisons, we can also note the transformation of the friendly old grocer, Doc, into his Puerto Rican widow – played by Rita Moreno who played the flamboyant companion of Maria’s brother, Anita, in the 1961 version. ‘a secondary tomboy character as a trans figure, played by Iris Menas, a non-binary actor.
From the 1961 film to that of 2021, Rita Moreno became the tutelary figure who watches over the neighborhood and tries to prevent the irreparable. | Twentieth century fox
Unlike the play and film from half a century ago, the choice of actors and actresses respects the age and origin of the characters they play – at least are Puerto Ricans played by Hispanic, which refers to a reality where Latin Americans come much more from Latin America than from the Caribbean island.
The only contemporary subject that the original libretto touched upon and which recent adapters have not been able or willing to do anything about is police behavior in poor neighborhoods.
As in the 1957 (on stage) and 1961 versions, the cops are shown to be simply overwhelmed by events – including by transposing the scene to the police station. “Gee, Officer Krupke”, while leaving him a good-natured character despite the violently ironic weight of the lyrics.
Cosmetically, wide shots remind us that there were also blacks in this city. And Spielberg’s visual virtuosity allows him to place the Maria-and-Tony melody and the Jets-contre-Sharks drama in a framework that never ceases to play between the reality of the situations evoked and the artifice inherent in a Broadway show.
All this contributes to producing an overall effect with a tonality that is ultimately much darker than that of the original work, even if the energy of the danced numbers remains.
The long shadows cast, metaphors of what has become of the fault lines evoked 60 years ago. | Twentieth century fox
Repeatedly in the film, Steven Spielberg resorts to such a pushy visual figure of speech that it ends up being a metaphor for what it’s really about remaking today. West Side Story. It is about the use, besides graphically very convincing, of long shadows cast.
The scathing failure of the American model
West Side Story, the play and the film, were at the turn of the years 1950-60 and in the codes of the great spectacle a work which took note of many dysfunctions of American society. But it was nevertheless a work inscribed in a moment of optimism, of the belief of the United States of its entry into a new era.
Robert Wise’s film came out the year Kennedy became president, and without making Maria / Nathalie Wood a transposition of JFK, the way in which she ultimately called for overcoming conflicts and hatred to build a better future made sense, to rightly or wrongly, for the audiences who were going to approve of the film, not just in the United States.
Now what the West Side Story of 2021 is that nothing, absolutely nothing, has improved since. The shadows cast become the visual translation of the multiple gray areas of America today (to which have been added since at least two other tragic phenomena, drugs and environmental disasters) without any of the essential problems pointed out by the authors of the musical more than 60 years ago have not found a solution.
Steven Spielberg’s film thus draws up a bitter observation of America’s inability to control its demons, to resolve the multiple and deep forms of injustice and sources of hatred, which therefore no longer appear as flaws to be corrected but as inherent in this civilization, in this model of society.
This impression of a bitter, even desperate observation of the inability of the American model to keep its promises, on the part of the author ofAmistad, of Lincoln, from Pentagon Papers, who has advocated so much for the idea that America is supposed to embody, is not reduced by the vitality of the dances and songs. On the contrary, it is underlined.
Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), sanitized and disembodied figures. | Twentieth century fox
In the same spirit, among the staging biases, we could add the strange choice of the two main performers, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. Smooth and sanitized faces, almost synthetic images, Tony and Maria seem like two dolls, puppets of an ideal love that would have no reality, no incarnation.
While around them, Ariana DeBose (Anita), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Mike Faist (Riff, the film’s reveal) are impressive in presence and endowed with more complex personalities than in the original libretto, the central duo are carried by dull figures, which seem to be statuettes in memory of a bygone hope.
West Side Story, staying very close to his model, in fact tells the opposite of it: the dramatic failure of the great American story, of which Steven Spielberg was one of the most recognized storytellers. The film will be a success, but on rubble that is not only that of the old West Side, rubble of which he takes note.
Jean-Michel Frodo’s cinema critics are to be found in the program “Cultural Affinities” by Tewfik Hakem, Saturday from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. on France Culture.
West Side Story
by Steven Spielberg
with Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno
Released: December 8, 2021