Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
West Side Story opens next week, December 10, but if everybody else gets to jump the gun these days, so will I.
How many times have I directed the “Quintet” from West Side Story in my head? A thousand, I suppose, lying on the living-room floor listening to the movie soundtrack album on my parents’ massive hi-fi, or driving along with the DVD playing in the car, or just walking down the street and thinking about the way the Jets’ chorus comes in over the Sharks’ voices and how you could stage that and where the cuts might be and how the camera would move. In such daydreams does one while away the hours from birth to earth.
I mention this to indicate that I don’t come from a neutral place with West Side Story, the Broadway musical that blends Romeo and Juliet with NYC gang fighting, filmed in 1961 and now remade. But I will try to be fair. I have no prejudice against the idea of a remake; bring it on, especially if the director is Steven Spielberg; despite its 10 Oscars and its Official Classic status, the ’61 production is seriously flawed. I also love that film, in the way you can love flawed movies. The score by Leonard Bernstein is unimpeachable, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim still shine, and the dance numbers, certainly, are magnificent. From everything I understand, the dance sequences, or most of them, were directed by Jerome Robbins, and everything else helmed by Robert Wise, who shared the overall directing credit for the movie (Robbins, the organizing genius behind the stage production, was fired mid-film).
Was Jerome Robbins a great movie director who never actually completed a feature film? Could be, because there are numbers in the 1961 West Side Story that sizzle with cinematic joy—it’s not just that the choreography is wonderful, but that the camera is responding to the dance in such an instinctive, delirious way. There’s a cut, during “America,” to a slightly lower-than-waist-high angle, which feels so right it socks you in the stomach, and then a couple of pairs of legs casually wander into the foreground of the widescreen frame, where we don’t expect to see them—not dancers, just onlookers, which lends a thrilling kind of offhand you-are-thereness.
Oh sure, you could say it was cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp calling the shots on that, the guy who’d done a bunch of Martin & Lewis comedies, and who two years after winning an Oscar for West Side Story would be shooting Fun in Acapulco. Uh-huh. We’ll never know about Robbins and film, but we do know about Spielberg, that he is a man of cinema in the way that loftier and smarter directors will never be, which is why I was greatly looking forward to seeing what Spielberg would do with this material, and how he might dream his way into the musical numbers, and how he might enliven the non-musical stuff that Robert Wise could only plod through. I suspected Spielberg might have directed the production numbers in his mind for many years; what would his “Quintet” look like?
I won’t keep you in suspense: I am disappointed in the film, although it has thrilling moments. Enough thrilling moments that I will certainly watch it again, but there’s something about the new film that feels earthbound. Tony Kushner’s screenplay, adapted from the Broadway book by Arthur Laurents (Ernest Lehman wrote the ’61 movie, and of course Will Shakespeare is lurking in the background of it all), does its due diligence about modern attitudes, quite rightly including more Spanish dialogue for its Puerto Rican characters, and making the formerly tomboyish Anybodys (played here by Iris Menas) into an definitively trans character. Some of this impulse feels like taking things that were already obvious and just making them more explicit. (Laudable, but still: earthbound.) Kushner’s best stroke, introduced in the opening shot, is that the “west side” of this story is a neighborhood being razed to make room for Lincoln Center—thus sharpening the impression that the Jets and the Sharks, in fighting each other over turf and race, are wasting energy that ought to be directed at The Man. And more than ever this West Side Story catches the sense that violence begets violence in not merely a tragic but a truly stupid, pointless way.
In Spielberg’s re-seeing West Side Story, he leans hard on his love of light itself, and his knowledge that the cinema is made of light, literally. There are countless examples of his visual punning on light as an indicator of life, and love, and cinematic energy, but I will mention two. During “Maria,” Tony (Ansel Elgort) finds himself trilling about his new infatuation, and comes upon a puddle on a paved lot, where the streetlights are reflected. Countless film directors have noticed the effect of light on water, but nobody has found the exact angle that Spielberg finds here so that Tony is framed looking up with the reflections shimmering behind him, a glorious correlative for the ecstatic music and feeling.
The other comes during “America,” agreeably re-located here to the middle of the day on the street, as Anita (Ariana DeBose) delivers her killer diss to Bernardo’s (David Alvarez) complaints about the U.S.A.: “You forget I’m in America.” As she sweeps to the right and the camera happily follows her motion out of the shot, her yellow dress swamped by the swoosh of its blood-red petticoat, a ray of sunlight catches her hair. Because it has to, because of the lyric, and the ending of the musical phrase, and because I suspect Spielberg has directed this moment in his head before, and that’s where the light went.
There are other things to like about the film: Spielberg’s gift for blocking (not just in the musical numbers), the absence of 21st-century-style Broadway singing (the performers actually just sing the songs, instead of trying to strangle them to death), an amusing staging of “I Feel Pretty” amidst a department-store setting—the Latina characters are cleaning the place at night—peopled with whiter-than-white mannequins living the Eisenhower-era American Dream. There’s not enough dancing for my taste, though, and “Cool,” usually a knockout, is badly served: a simplified version of the number, set on a disintegrating dock so that Tony and Riff are jumping around avoiding big holes—an unwelcome touch of the video game.
Some of the cast members are terrific: DeBose and Mike Faist (a lean, whiny-voiced Riff) are the standouts, full of hunger and quick-trigger force. Alvarez does ably as Bernardo, Josh Andres Rivera is spot-on as the hapless Chino, and Rachel Zegler, in her first movie role, is sincere and focused as Maria—she’s rooted in the movie’s emotional reality in a pleasing, non-movie-star way, but you can also believe she’s dreamy-headed enough to go all goo-goo-eyed in the stop-time dance when she first meets Tony at the gym.
Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film, is cast here as the owner of Doc’s neighborhood store. I wish I liked the idea more, but I couldn’t shake the aura of stunt casting, like when an actor who played Boba Fett or some goddamn thing turns up in one of the modern Stars Wars movies and the audience is expected to drop their popcorn en masse. Obviously, Moreno’s a capable performer, and maybe this is one of those things I’ll be more at ease with on second viewing.
What won’t improve, I’m pretty sure, is the film’s stupefying central miscue, which is—well, let’s put it this way: Come back, Richard Beymer, all is forgiven. You will recall that Beymer’s hopelessly gosh-and-golly performance as Tony is one of the sticking points for the 1961 film, but say this: At least Beymer lip-synced his songs with gusto. The same can’t be said for Ansel Elgort, who looks distracted and manages to underplay the songs while also rushing them. Elgort moves well for a tall man, and he physically occupies space nicely during “Maria” and “Tonight,” but in vocal delivery and facial expression, the actor has no zip. I see what he and Spielberg are aiming for: Elgort has a touch of Brando in his face, and might be channeling the On the Waterfront Brando in accent and lack of intellectual prowess. But it doesn’t work. I know that people will overlook it because generally there’s so much to enjoy in this movie, but it’s a serious shortcoming. You ever wonder what Back to the Future would have looked like if Michael J. Fox hadn’t been the replacement lead? Now you do.
There’s more to be said about the film—for instance, the sound design is fascinating, a curious absence of the usual comforting layer of ambient sound when the music isn’t playing; I couldn’t quite figure it out on one viewing, but it’s practically experimental. Also, there are times when Spielberg’s role as America’s Moviemaker veers perilously into view: For instance—no spoiler here—but there’s a late moment when Anybodys’ position as Jet-wannabe is addressed, and Spielberg’s camera executes an inexcusably portentous push-in as a decision is weighed, a movement that feels more connected to making a pronouncement about a social issue than the size of the narrative matter at hand.
The film has enjoyed a rapturous early reception; some of the reviews carry an urgent sort of “The movies are back!” quality, for completely understandable reasons. I wish I shared that feeling, but the longer West Side Story went on, the more I sensed the air seeping out.
But is the “Quintet” good? Yes—alive and kicking. In that sequence and in so many others, West Side Story confirms that Spielberg, like Hitchcock, was never just a born entertainer, but also a filmmaker drunk on the abstract forms and rhythms of movies—the interior of Maria’s apartment is a credible-enough depiction of a tenement flat, but also a collection of shapes and colors, window frames and brightly-hued hanging fabrics, all keyed to the drive and emotion of the characters, all waiting for light to be poured into them.
December 3, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.