“West Side Story” (2021): Who Wants to Live in America (Review)

· Films & Video Games


Steven Spielberg (without Tony Kushner) already made a musical.  It was called Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  In that film, anything went.  In West Side Story (2021), nothing did.

When the two leads aren’t there, the picture is occasionally tolerable.  Like the original, the two leads are the least interesting pieces of their own film, and elevated by the strength of the supporting actors, especially Anita (Ariana DeBose) and Bernardo (David Alvarez).  When Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) are featured, only the camerawork can be appreciated.  Anything to look away from the frosh-faced senior circling the barely legal teeny-bopper.

I was never the biggest fan of the original West Side Story, but the achievement of its songs and setpieces can’t be denied.  I have memories of playing “America” in my high school marching band.  And since I’m the only person on planet Earth who doesn’t like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, there’s no real substitute for West Side Story (1961) as the musical version of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood story.  The new one understands neither.  The way you can tell is because of how it replaces racial undertones with racial overtones, and reframes the rivalry in such pitifully political terms that it’s impossible to have fun because none of the characters are having it.

The most obvious example of that is the setpiece for “Gee Officer Krupke.”  The best song in the original film, and once a vibrant, emotionally rich expression of boyish fun from tragic circumstances, has been turned into a juvenile precinct-trashing romp without Riff.  It doesn’t have the magic because the framing and focus is about how their misery turns them miserable and how they inflict it on others.  In fact, there pretty much isn’t a single Jet who isn’t deplorable in all the ways you understand that term today.  They are much more aggressively racist and toxic here, and the only reason that song is set in the station is because they have just bullied the trans kid into a demonstration of masculinity by fighting them, elbowing Krupke in the ribs, and breaking out.  Which also means – yes – the only reason that Anybodys (who in the original film was just a tomboy) is played by a non-binary actor is so the Jets can look all the more awful by torturing him(?).

The treatment of the Sharks is slightly better, but only by virtue of the strength of the actors.  Bernardo exhibits at the outset a sense of self awareness that all of the Jets seem to lack.  “We gotta do it, but it’s stupid,” he tells Chino.  In a sense, it’s actually a smart decision by the film to treat the near rape of Anita as the real climax of the film rather than the murder of Tony.  But you realize that the purpose of it is for Anita to bravely re-assert her identity as Puerto Rican and therefore not American.  Now Bernardo’s position in “America” is entirely vindicated because who would want to live in a place with people like those filthy Jets.  There’s already an identitarian backlash against the film for the fact that Rachel Zegler is not Puerto Rican; perhaps there will be another one now that Puerto Rico is made to look less like State # 51 (or 52) and more like a distant home.  With such emphasis on setting and sovereignty of identity (much is made in the media about the omission of those pesky racist subtitles), West Side Story (2021) is not selling a common Shakespearian tragedy.  It’s just a war over a safe space.

If you understand Romeo and Juliet as an aspirational love story rather than a satire of rival stupidity, then you don’t understand Romeo and Juliet.  Don’t squabble your riches by turning your family into a gang just because the other family is doing it; eventually your idiot kids will get themselves killed, not just by fighting but falling in love.  West Side Story (2021) posits the opposite, but only from one side.  Spielberg stated that he has always wanted to make a musical, but this movie feels like he had just as strong a desire to remake American History X.  But even that movie had a better political integration of music than this one.  All of the Puerto Rican ethnic anger is justified without thought, and Robert Moses’s urban developments hang in the background to remind them of that.  The bright contrast of colors, outfits, and decorations that made the first such a lush piece of spectacle have here been replaced with drab, colorless uniformity.  The entire picture came and went in front of my eyes on that big digital screen.  A bland rush of songs and dances with great technical skill yet no real feeling.  The only reaction I remember having to any moment was the briefest pang of déjà vu when I saw the blackened, hollow eyes of Chino when he brandished the gun.

I have seen that pair of eyes only once before.  It was on the face of Omar Metwally’s character Ali in Munich.  And in that moment, the entire experience clicked for me.  This wasn’t just an ordinary disappointment, but a personal tragedy.

Munich was the first collaboration project between Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner.  I have written about it here.  And just like West Side Story, it is both a colorful and colorless tale of a bitter territorial dispute between ethnic opposites – Israel and Palestine.  Kushner and Spielberg (and in an indirect sense, George Jonas) blended and harmonized their opposing viewpoints beautifully in a movie about political and psychological warfare that conveyed collective spiritual sorrow without shame, and vulnerability without venality.  Ali’s eyes were in sharp contrast to the kindly, fearful eyes of Avner, and the scene between them evoked both conviction in rightness and the shared fears of having to be right forever.  The magic came from the framing.

That magic is entirely absent from West Side Story.  It’s a less disturbing story with much more fun-loving characters, so why is this new film such a dark, pointlessly gritty, and alienating experience?  Where is the extension of empathy everywhere and to everyone?  Where is the color, the daring dreams of happier and hopeful people that makes the tragic end feel like an actual tragedy?  Why does Riff’s girlfriend, in Valentina’s shop, suddenly forget that her boyfriend is dead and start talking about her past relationship with Tony?  Why are the Jets girls in any scene apart from the gym, except to protest against or be incredibly disturbed by the bad boy behavior?

As I see the blackened, bloodshot eyes of Chino, which has no context given his long absence from the story, I realize that the vivid fantasy of the original has been replaced by Kushner’s disturbing flights of fancy.  We have a movie where everyone is Ali and almost no one is Avner.  We have a story that doesn’t see the gang rivalry as born of conflicting human beings prone to making the mistakes of the Montagues and Capulets, but as conditioned by the American brand of cruelty.

It goes without saying that in addition to the utterly incapable lead actors here, the romance of Tony and Maria is even more forgettable than it was in the original. They are given backstories they don’t need to explain motivations they barely have, and the one good scene between them is the scene where he takes out his notepad of Spanish words to tell her something romantic in the somber church. The best scene in the story; Spielberg can still make magic when he wants to. But the malignant reworking of the setting by Kushner has rendered his efforts here meaningless.

The original West Side Story was good, but not perfect.  In at least an ethnic sense, nu-West Side Story is more “perfect.”  It isn’t good.  Spielberg took many steps to make his first “official” musical.  In doing so, he lost one.

– Vivek

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