In a review of a less-than-stellar 2016 remake of Ben-Hur, I asked: “Why? Why a remake of Ben-Hur? Why ever remake anything, for that matter? Are there no original ideas?”
I haven’t changed my mind about that specific remake, but I have changed my mind, provisionally, about some remakes. After all, nobody objects to Broadway revivals of Guys and Dolls or Fiddler on the Roof.
Remaking a movie is a bit different, especially when casting in the earlier version has made it a classic. I can’t imagine Casablanca without Bogart and Bergman.
So, I was queasy about Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, because the 10-Oscar-winning 1961 original, directed by Robert Wise with choreography by Jerome Robbins, was such an electrifying experience. After seeing it, I and some of my high-school football teammates walked down the main street in town attempting to dance as the Jets do at the start of Wise’s film.
I left the theater this time wishing my aged knees would still allow me to slide and leap.
The opening sequence of Spielberg’s version (choreographed by Justin Peck) is nearly as good and in some ways better. And I know why: casting. It’s not that actor-dancer Russ Tamblyn (as Riff) and the rest of his 1961 Jets gang weren’t very good; it’s that Mike Faist’s Riff and the ensemble of Spielberg’s delinquents are better. For starters, they look better: more like rough street kids spoiling for a rumble and less like guys who left their leotards in lockers at City Ballet.
I liked George Chakiris as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks in the original, despite the fact that his heritage is Greek, not Puerto Rican, and despite the makeup he had to wear to darken his complexion. I know, of course, that David Alvarez, whom Spielberg cast as Bernardo, was born in Montreal to Cuban parents, so his Puerto Rican accent is. . .acting.
Anyway, the Sharks and Jets in the new film give a grittier simulacrum of urban toughness.
One almost grows tired of all the British thespians who, in movies and on television in the United States, have American accents that are dead-on-perfect. That’s cool. Yet people complain that too few actors in the new West Side Story are actually Puerto Rican. This misses the point: a director’s goal is to fill the cast with fine performers, and Spielberg has.
Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, isn’t Puerto Rican. Her mother (Wikipedia informs) is “of Colombian descent,” and her father is “of Polish descent,” and I’d like to ask: When did we decide it’s a cultural sin not to cast only 100 percent Latin actors to play Latin characters?
Ansel Elgort, who plays Polish-American Tony (Romeo to Maria’s Juliet), has – again says Wikipedia – a father “of Russian Jewish descent” and a mother “of Norwegian, English and German ancestry.”
My goodness! These kids must be Americans or something! But I digress. Vehemently.
I don’t care where they come from. Miss Zegler and Mr. Elgort are excellent. They’re much better singers than Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer from back in ’61, although that’s easy to say since neither Wood nor Beymer actually sang – they were dubbed by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant.
Mr. Spielberg has not updated the setting: it’s still 1957 on the West Side of Manhattan, as slum clearance is beginning to make way for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and luxury apartments. This gives the film a political edge: both gangs know they’re being displaced – their communities being pushed aside – in the name of wealth and progress. They know it’s senseless to blame one another for their rage. They know the elites consider poor “whites” and poor Puerto Ricans so much trash to be swept aside.
And more so than in Wise’s film, Spielberg has brought out the West Side’s Catholicism. There’s a (slightly irreverent) scene in a Catholic church with women in chapel veils, and we see the sign of the cross made by characters in several scenes. In the apartment shared by Maria and Anita (Ariana DeBose), each has a crucifix over her bed.
Miss DeBose plays the role for which Rita Moreno won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1962. As you may know, Ms. Moreno appears in the new film, as the store owner Valentina (a new character), who, though Puerto Rican, is like a mother to Tony. In one of the questionable choices made by the director, Moreno sings “Somewhere,” which on stage and in the first film is a tragic coda, a duet with Maria and Tony. It works when Moreno sings it – just not as well.
Spielberg has flipped the coda, which is now “One Hand, One Heart,” first sung by the doomed couple (before their fates are sealed by violence) at the MET Cloisters museum in Upper Manhattan. It’s as tender a romantic scene as you’ll see. Maria will later reprise the song. Alone.
The music, of course, is the same marvelous score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. That music always had emotional intensity, but Spielberg has suffused his film with powerful passion not seen in his work since Schindler’s List. His West Side Story is not as great a film as that, but it is very good.
And I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Justin Peck’s choreography exceeds Jerome Robbins’, although it’s very much influenced by Robbins. I assume it was Spielberg who let loose the dancers from the constraints of 1961, carried over, then, from the Broadway stage, especially in “America” and “I Feel Pretty,” now joyously liberated.
Like its ultimate source, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a plea for tolerance. Shakespeare has the Prince declaim: “See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.”
At my most recent Confession, the ailing, holy priest, in a faint and wavering voice, gave me my penance: “Go. . .and spread peace.”
West Side Story is rated PG-13, as MPAA explains, “for some strong violence [the rumble], strong language [in English and Spanish!], thematic content, suggestive material [but no nudity], and brief smoking.” Not sure what “thematic content” refers to . . . unless Catholicism is considered “triggering.”
You may also enjoy:
Pope Pius XI’s On movies, bad and good (from Vigilanti Cura, 1936)
Mr. Miner’s Soap-Box Derby: A Review of Ben-Hur (2016)