in Oscars Fortnight

West Side Story (2021)

94th Academy Awards (2022)
Wins: We’ll see…

It’s strange to remember that when this week began, just a few days ago, I had never seen West Side Story. I knew some of the songs, like “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria,” and “America,” but I’m not sure if I knew they were all in the same musical. I knew that it was inspired by Romeo and Juliet (“inspired” is an understatement) with the Montagues and Capulets replaced by dancey finger-snappin’ hoodlums called the Jets and the Sharks. And I knew from a 2007 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that there was a character named Officer Krupke that inspires the phrase “Krup you!” I really think that’s it. That’s all I knew. Until my life changed forever on Monday when I finally watched the 1961 film adaptation and have had this extremely theatrical version of Manhattan playing on repeat in my head ever since.

The first cinematic adaptation of West Side Story was released just four years after the original Broadway production debuted in 1957. The play was conceived by Broadway legend Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, who I hadn’t heard of but has a ton of cool credits to his name too, such as Hitchcock’s Rope. The 1961 film was directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, who I thought of as a sci fi guy because he did The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture but perhaps better known as the director of this and the other big Maria musical, The Sound of Music. Which means Wise was a genius when it came to adapting stage musicals, because those are two movies that feel so much more ambitious than just filmed performances. West Side Story especially is sweeping, dynamic, kinetic, epic, transformative entertainment that made almost every other musical I’ve seen seem lazy by comparison and prompted me to review it on Letterboxd as “the moviest movie that ever movied.”

All that said, time hasn’t been especially generous to the 1961 adaptation. West Side Story‘s portrayal of race is, to put it lightly, out of step with modern sensibilities. Despite all those amazing creatives, it sounds like nobody really did any research into Puerto Rico or the immigrant population living in New York. Apparently the choice to make a musical about a conflict between white and Puerto Rican gangs was a compromise to make the story more fashionable after they originally conceived a conflict between Catholics and Jews that would have been called “East Side Story.” Natalie Wood, the daughter of Russian immigrants, gives a less-than-stellar performance as the Boricua Maria – including a very “theatrical” accent. The other Sharks, especially Rita Moreno as Anita and George Chakiris as Bernardo, are smothered in makeup to make their skin darker – a distasteful choice that looks especially ugly in high definition. And it’s not like there was a lot of other Puerto Rican representation at the time – so while West Side Story created opportunities for Puerto Rican actors, it also pigeonholed them into stereotypical roles.

There are other, less glaring issues to the original West Side Story as well. The movie opens with an overture set to a static image of a minimalist Saul Bass rendering of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I honestly don’t know if modern audiences have the patience to sit through six minutes of one picture, even though it does lead into some breathtaking Candyman-esque aerial footage of the city. The rest of of the movie is surprisingly psychedelic, leaning surprisingly hard into trippy effects and transitions in a way that I was all about but certainly makes in emphatically clear when the film was made. In short, I could definitely see room for this story to be reinterpreted. Enter: Steven Spielberg.

The knee-jerk reaction to the news that Steven Spielberg was directing a new adaptation of West Side Story was confusion. Why is he doing his first musical (aside from the opening of Temple of Doom) in his sixth decade of directing? Especially since the 1961 adaptation won 10 Oscars, isn’t Spielberg doomed to fail by following in its footsteps 60 years later? Well, like I wrote above, one reason to do it is that there were some things that needed updating. But Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had one other powerful weapon in their arsenal that the original creatives could never have had: retrospect. While the original West Side Story was about contemporary Manhattan, this new adaptation has the luxury of providing powerful, ironic additional context to the tragedy.

Spielberg’s West Side Story replaces the overture with shots of the early construction of Lincoln Center. This icon of Manhattan was built on the corpse of San Juan Hill, a neighborhood that was mostly African American, Afro Caribbean, and Puerto Rican until the residents were displaced and their homes bulldozed. The destructive power of urban renewal weighs heavily on this adaptation, which makes the territory war between the Jets and Sharks seem so much more meaningless. These kids are fighting for control of a neighborhood their about to get kicked out of anyway. And they’re so distracted by their superficial differences they can’t even see that their real enemy is the rich people who are trying to pretend their lives don’t matter. This hits home especially hard when Rita Moreno gets to sing “Somewhere” toward the end of the movie, a recontextualization of one of the dinkiest songs from the musical that makes it the most powerful when you realize she’s singing about problems from 60 years ago that are just as sadly relevant today.

Having come this far, I realize I’ve gotten so bogged down in politics I’ve neglected to make it clear that this movie also kicks the ass. The camerawork, which I never know if I should credit to Spielberg or cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, is genuinely thrilling – this West Side Story somehow has even more striking images than the other one. Rachel Zegler, who is basically a newborn baby, delivers an absolutely star-making performance as Maria, despite the trope that Maria and Tony are the most boring characters in the story. Noted sex pest Ansel Elgort doesn’t quite live up to that benchmark as Tony, but he’s definitely a lot better than blank slate Richard Beymer. And Ariana DeBose is going to follow in Rita Moreno’s footsteps and win an Oscar for her Anita.

This West Side Story gave me a lot to chew on, but mostly I just had a lot of fun watching it. I’ve had these damn songs stuck in my head all week. It’s really good! You can watch it on HBO Go or Disney Plus, take your pick! Just do it! Do it now!