Top 20 Films of 2021: #15- West Side Story

I adore Stephen Sondheim and revere him, as one should do with genre-busting, influential creative geniuses. I know his contributions to musical theater and movie musicals over some five decades are immeasurable and that he is probably the overwhelming consensus choice for greatest musical lyricist and composer of the 20th century. One cannot discuss Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story without talking first and foremost about the man integral to building the beautifully sturdy original structure; without looking at Sondheim’s lusly witty book of lyrics, surely among the most staggeringly assured debut works for an artist in any medium. If this is your first time learning that little factoid, take a moment to let it linger. One of the most enduring and brilliant songbooks in history was merely the opening salvo to the man’s long career. And that long career brings us to the problem that I am still utterly unqualified to give you any kind of satisfactory primer on the genius of Stephen Sondheim, short of remarking that his genius is evident in virtually every work of his I’ve seen (a number that is still far too low). It’s a genius evident in the sumptuous and sardonic melancholy of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and in the thinking person’s fairtyale puncturing of Into the Woods. Even select pieces I’ve heard divorced from the larger works, such as certain numbers from Company and Merrily We Roll Along, have struck me and have been the centerpieces for great scenes in brilliant films like Ladybird and Marriage Story. The godfather of musical theater passed away just this year and a host of moving essays have been written about the man, all worth reading and all suffused with a lot more lovely context than this relative Sondheim neophyte can provide. The best this review can muster is to send in one uninformed clown to urge you to visit, or revisit, his deep and prolific work. I know that is what I will be doing in the near future. The wild thing about West Side Story isn’t just that it’s Stephen Sondheim’s debut, but that it’s actually him operating at only half of his powers, which is to say only as a lyricist. Sondheim would quickly join Cole Porter and Irving Berlin in the rarefied air of musical theater artists who wrote both their own music and lyrics. For his maiden voyage to the Great White Way, however, Sondheim would write to music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein (soon to be played by Bradley Cooper). Those lyrics are still confoundingly great and are, to my mind, the biggest reason why a fairly faithful remake of Robert Wise’s 1961 masterpiece can still feel revelatory and necessary. From the sardonic teen rebel snark of “Officer Kruepke” to the delicately devastating poignance of “Somewhere” to the still-timely critique of “America”, Sondheim’s words are a thing of piercingly astute Technicolor rapture. Capable of leaping effortlessly from humor to yearning to sorrow (this is the Romeo and Juliet musical after all), Sondheim’s first little masterpiece springs and swoons with a verbal dexterity to match the gymnastic finesse of its dancers. Before Steven Spielberg adds his own vibrant visual brushstrokes to the canvas, it only takes a few lines from “When You’re A Jet” to set aside any misgivings about redundancy. This is Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story”, one of the most incandescently alive songbooks there is. There is certainly a place for it, for multiple imaginings of it. And it’s going to be great!

The new film begins, like the 1961 version does, in 1950s New York City, with two street gangs, alike in immaturity. But perhaps not completely alike, for one gang, The Jets, seems to exist solely for the purpose of making life miserable for all the non-white gangs in the city. In particular, they live to terrorize and vandalize the neighborhoods of the local Puerto Rican immigrant community. They’re a band of uneducated, nationalistic, young Bill the Butchers still clinging fast to the xenophobia of yesteryear and (as Tony Kushner’s nimbly updated screenplay is not shy to remind us) of our present American moment. The local Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, exists to oppose the Jets and to protect their neighbors, though it seems that neither gang really has anything to offer its melting pot city but more and more cyclical (albeit balletic and meticulously choreographed) violence. The police officers, who tellingly harass the white gang with noticeably more almost-affectionate frustration than they do with the Puerto Ricans, shake their heads at the futility and the sad class blindness of the two sides’ squabbling. All the territory they are brawling and bleeding over will soon be dismantled to make room for Lincoln Center and for luxury condominiums that not a single character in this narrative will ever be allowed to set foot inside. That feeling of senseless brutality doesn’t seem entirely lost on the fatalistic leaders of the gangs, Bernardo (a very strong David Alvarez) and Riff (a best in show revelation named Mike Faist), but neither are about to stop the show or cede any ground to the other. On the contrary, Riff wants to escalate the tensions even further with a once-and-for-all fight to determine control of the territories. He’s planning to have this final brawl in the next 24 hours and he is counting on his ace in the hole and best friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort, handsome) to be the deciding factor in this climactic duel. Tony was the Jets’ most feared fighter some years back before he was sent to prison for nearly beating the member of another gang to death. He is now working and rooming in the general store of a local Puerto Rican widow (the wonderful Rita Moreno, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Anita in the Best Picture-winning 1961 version) and making a concerted effort to turn away from criminality. Riff insists on Tony accompanying the Jets to that night’s youth dance, where members of both Jets and Sharks will be present. Tony ends up going with the caveat that he won’t be doing anything to jeopardize his parole, but ends up finding a different form of trouble when he and Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler, tremendous dramatically and vocally) meet behind the gymnasium bleachers and fall instantly in love. The next 24 hours are a fraught and luscious whirlwind of romance, beauty and bloodshed as only Shakespeare’s most emo-infused play (give or take a Hamlet) can offer. Anyone who’s seen Romeo and Juliet or the first West Side Story knows where this goes, but it’s really all about how kinetically, kaleidoscopically and heart-tuggingly it goes there. And after a production period as long as COVID itself and filled with enough hype to fill a skyscraper, it is somewhat unreal what a miraculous success Spielberg’s remake is. As a pure parade of colored lights, beautiful faces, and wooning sounds, there is really nothing from 2021 to equal it.
It’s always a good sign when you can split opinion up every which way about whose contribution is most crucial to the greatness of a film, and I could happily spend the length of two reviews throwing bouquets at every person involved in this opulent production. To start, you would not be wrong to focus your highest praises on Spielberg’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The man who made Schindler’s List‘s ghettos look almost indecently striking, who filled the Congressional hallways of Lincoln with shafts of holy historical light, and gave Saving Private Ryan its transcendentally hellish Omaha Beach charge. Set loose in a metropolitan dreamscape vision of the 1950s, Kaminski produces an ecstatic barrage of vivid color and gravity-defying motion so transporting that the word I most want to use to describe it is just musical. In some effable way, it just looks like melody, like the passionate strains of a song. His compositions glow and sizzle and radiate like the movements in a bombastic, gospel-tinged symphony. To use the words of an old turn-of-the-century ditty, Kaminski casts a light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York, and in just about every alleyway, apartment and warehouse too. There is a shot of Tony simply standing in a puddle, surrounded by the reflected glow of street lamps, which looks like something Van Gogh might have imagined or wished he’d lived to see. And, just as important as his painterly eye, is the fact that Kaminski is a giddy, athletic collaborator with Justin Peck’s blistering choreography (and vice versa, as the two worked in tandem along with Spielberg to conceptualize each thrilling setpiece). When you see Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (a magnesium-hot bolt of starpower named Ariana de Bose) twirling and gyrating with scores of other dancers through the daytime streets of Harlem, you can feel Kaminski and Peck both jockeying jovially with each other to see who can captivate you more. What comes closer to touching the face of God: the carousel twirl of Anita’s bright yellow dress until it rises to reveal the blood red slip underneath, or the way Kaminski stages it against a sea of similarly color-coded men and women so it feels like we are watching a flowerbed get its wish to turn human for a few minutes? One other reason you need not fear this West Side Story feeling old hat is that Kaminski and a team of aesthetic wizards in various crafty disciplines ensure that the film would be a perfect sensory experience even if it had no story at all.
And then, there’s also just that magical way Steven Spielberg has with casting. I imagine it might be one of the tertiary things most people credit the storied director with. After his technical wizardry, his blockbuster showman instincts, and maybe even after all those wonderful John Williams scores his films have given us. But, almost from the beginning, Spielberg has had a keen knack not just for working with great actors but for finding them too. His Empire of the Sun (a supremely underrated Spielberg masterpiece in this critic’s opinion) not only spotlighted a very young Christian Bale but allowed him to start his career with a performance that still stands among his best work. The whiz kid (now entering into his sixth decade behind the camera) knows when to cast megastars as his leads (Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise) and when to give big roles to terrific character actors like Laura Dern, Mark Rylance, and Ralph Fiennes. And if you are thinking that some those “character actors” are stars too, consider the role Spielberg’s films have played in deservedly elevating their statures in the public consciousness. For purposes of this review, Spielberg has a particularly acute eye for casting new or relatively untested talent. In Saving Private Ryan, he paired the then-biggest Oscar magnet in the world, Tom Hanks, with a group of young men who were all practically unheard of at the time. They were Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi. Every single one of them has gone on to have some measure of success, critically or financially or both. It would surprise me to no end if West Side Story‘s electric young cast did not repeat or even surpass that feat. After seeing Ariana de Bose sizzle or Rachel Zegler gently tuck your heart in her pocket or David Alvarez hold the screen with his commanding gaze, I could not wait to see what all of them did next. It would be lunacy if we did not get to watch them again and watch them a lot. And most of all, I just don’t think it’s possible to watch Mike Faist turn the reasonably good role of Riff into the year’s most unexpectedly transfixing screen performance and not feel in your bones that Spielberg has just introduced us to a generational talent. The undercurrent of pathos and knowingly doomed stubbornness he brings to the Jets’ leader steals the story away with every appearance. Moreover, it makes you believe the idea of Tony’s eventually fatal loyalty to the gang in a way that Ansel Elgort is just not capable of doing. Faist pitches the idea, just for a scattered handful of moments, that West Side Story should actually be the tale of a charismatically ignorant, racist, self-defeating shitkicker with a Newsies accent and John Mulaney’s bone structure. But are we all so sure that it shouldn’t be? Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story are both about photogenic, young bodies clashing up against each other and throwing their lives away for no good reason, except for two of them who at least end up throwing their lives away for some kind of reason. The senseless tragedy of it all becames bearable and even guttingly irresistible only by making horny, stupid, impetuous youth feel as hypnotically, alluringly alive as possible. It only works with actors that can dazzle both your mind and your eyes. To have found a cast this up to the hot-stepping, lens-popping task is the kind of thing few outside of Spielberg could pull off. And full credit to all these superb actors of course. But let’s also raise a toast to the wily old bastard who, all these years later, still knows how to put together a team!
Spielberg has obviously had a number of partnerships I would love to see the next chapter of, from the poignant gravitas and effortless charm he’s gotten three times out of Tom Hanks (we do not acknowledge The Terminal‘s existence) to a wealth of collaborations with masters of their craft like John Williams and Janusz Kaminski. But, when we look to Spielberg’s work in the 21st century, it’s hard to find a partner more harmoniously beneficial to the veteran director’s process than celebrated Angels In America playwright-turned-dynamo-screenwriter, Tony Kushner. The man has written screenplays for only four completed films to date, but every one of them has been a Best Picture nominee. It’s a Stephen Sondheim-like run of immediate early success and the streak seems unlikely to change with his work on Spielberg’s coming of age autobiography The Fablemans later this year. The genius scribe, a subtle dramaturge who punctuates patient scenes (Lincoln, about trying to secure enough votes to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, is literally nothing but patient scenes) with bursts of flowery poetry, has performed a minor miracle with West Side Story. He has taken a property seven decades old based on a play centuries older, and he has cut right to its modern heart. He has supplemented Ernest Lehman’s 1961 screenplay with small grace notes that bring West Side Story into modern age. The age of immigrants fighting for their place in the American narrative. And the age of infantile, emasculated white men who view diversity as an existential threat while pig-headedly failing to see the true adversary of greed and capitalistic indifference right in front of their noses. Kushner’s words allow us to feel some pity for these foolish young men marginalized by their nation’s rampant classism, while never cleansing them of the sin of their hateful racism. He allows the Jets to be captivating and human and even funny but, as Doc (the Rita Moreno character’s late white husband) said in the 1961 film, all the Jets are really doing, with their sburron pride and mistrust of anyone who doesn’t look like them, is making the world lousy. There is so much that could better, but prejudice continually rears its head and reduces everything to ashes. Riff bemoans the rubble of his life and the dust covering everything, but he and his men are too slow to see how much of that is of their own making.
At the heart of West Side Story lies the idea that these characters, so many of them sympathetic fools, could be doing more joyful things with their time. Dancing and singing and falling in love. Before the brawl, one young Jet proposes they just go smoke weed at the zoo instead and he’s absolutely right! How much less devastating a film this would be if most of these characters chose any other path than the violent one that they opt for. The one that pulls everyone, hateful or not, into its merciless eddy. Of course, the young stoner’s wisdom is ignored and the plot proceeds along its tragic course; the course that Tony and Maria briefly thought they might break away from. It’s the reason that, of all Sondheim’s glorious words, the ones that still prick the most may be the simplest. “There’s a place for us.” The dream of making things just a little bit better, and how hard one must fight to find a little bit of good somewhere in the world’s angry free-for-all. It’s the sadly timely wisdom that Kushner sees in this story. There are so many ways that America has decided to give into the inertia of selfishness and exclusivity rather than enjoying what we have and letting others feel some of that joy as well. Somewhere along the way we’ve decided that people will need to suffer and die instead, and for no other reason than that it is the status quo. The tragedy of Shakespeare’s play, Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, and now Kushner’s beautifully perceptive adaptation is that habit and a lack of empathy doom us. Our leads find something nice among the carnage and rubble of their lives and those who care about them all have their chances to learn by their example; to brush away the fog of long-festering grievances and help their families, their friends, and themselves. And then everyone is just a little too dumb, stuck, hurt, trampled upon and mixed up to break free. And that’s the old story. The tidal forces of toxic history and rotten tradition are currents too powerful for these aimless kids to overcome. Kushner, Spielberg, Shakespeare, Sondheim, and the rest of us can only watch and know that this will all be writ again. The lights come up. And we go hence to have more talk of these sad things.

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