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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson loves "West Side Story"

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West Side Story
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West Side Story is receiving mostly rave reviews

Steven Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY was calendared to open over a year ago, as was Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. The two productions had filmed simultaneously all over the metro area, often within blocks of each other, like two rival gangs fighting over the same turf. Then life, known as COVID 19, happened and pushed both openings to this year. Our film critic Harlan Jacobson says this new West Side Story wins the rumble.

Remaking West Side Story belongs roughly in the same category of risk-taking as rebuilding the Taj Mahal, the world’s greatest monument to love. And we know how that turned out in that quintessentially American venture, Las Vegas.

Steven Spielberg hasn’t just remade the greatest musical testament to love in the second half of the 20th Century, he’s made a new, thrilling one, that hangs for relevance in the early days of the 21st Century on the amended story by Tony Kushner, his previous collaborator on the plodding Munich and the intellectually livelier Lincoln.

The camera and the audio simply adore the new doomed Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, maybe even more than Robert Wise’s 1961 film adored Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood.  David Alvarez brings an authority and credibility to Bernardo, Maria’s brother and head Shark, that the beloved but career-stymied George Chakiris never approached. And Ariana DeBose’s Anita (memorably Rita Moreno in the original), delivers both fire (in the “America” number) and ice (“A Boy Like That”) to spare. It’s Moreno, not Maria, who now sings “Somewhere,” as the doleful priestess of can’t we all just get along.

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Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
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A dance scene from West Side Story

Every frame of this West Side Story, every Jerome Robbins dance step athleticized by choreographer Justin Peck as kids with Icarus-like wings taking them out of the rubble into a sky they don’t have overhead, every neighborhood location in Newark and bombed-out Paterson NJ, as well as the City up to the Cloisters to limn the transcendent holiness of love in a setting that summons Romeo and Juliet, every one of them is mesmerizing.

Consider what the original Broadway play accomplished in 1957. The surface was its throwback to Shakespeare’s doomed young lovers with book by Arthur Laurents, a surpassingly beautiful score by Leonard Bernstein, then in his prime, with kinetic jazz choreography by Jerome Robbins, whose idea it was to take it to Broadway, from the mid-century modernism of the post-War Fifties and lyrics by Steven Sondheim, a 27 year-old kid who died last month as the most adored lyricist of all time at 91.

That West Side Story was the most prominent fusion of the civil rights era to the Broadway musical, a pop classical art form about to lose its currency. It’s tempting to say it had never been done, but the 2015 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1949 South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont sliced through the “Bali Hai” romanticism of every high school production across the land to reveal the 1949 original’s anti-Asian racist critique of the war era.

West Side Story, eight years later, was the apotheosis of breakthrough progressive social politics grafted onto that old lady Broadway, and then four years later into Robert Wise’s and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 film adaption that played like a musical play more than a film. An adaptation that I still love to this day, as did the Academy, which gave it 10 Oscars including best film. Spielberg, however, starts in his genes as a master filmmaker, and his West Side Story is a better film. It too gives me goosebumps.

But to what end, you rightly ask? One trembles at what the cultural appropriation guardians will do with this West Side Story. While Kushner’s story contemporizes, it lacks the sheer history making audacity of the original—how could it do that? It does deliver a social politics update to Spielberg in the following ways:

The Sharks, as much as been written about, are played by Latinos, not whites in mocha makeup.

There’s a small percentage of dialogue in Spanish without subtitles.

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West Side Story/Twentieth Century Fox Films
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Rita Moreno

Kushner wrote a part for Rita Moreno here as Valentina, the Hispanic widow of Doc, the late proprietor of Doc’s Drugstore in the original, and mother protector of Tony.

The character of Anybodys (Iris Menas) has been re-engineered from butch to gender fluid, very au courant that.

Corey Stoll’s Lt. Schrank is openly white sympathetic as a cop to Riff, played as a twitchy downed power line by Mike Faist, way hotter in temperature than Russ Tamblyn in ’61. He offers a moment of realpolitik to Riff: “You’re the last of the can’t make it Caucasians. By the time you get out of jail, Riff, this is gonna be full of shiny new apartment buildings for rich people with Puerto Rican doormen to evict white trash like you.” Ouch! Even Tony makes a case for Riff being invisible. Which completes the circle of current politics from minority identity to Trump voter empathy. Bravo, I think?

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West Side Story
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A scene from West Side Story

Whatever the imagined turf battles between the white Jets and tan Sharks, this West Side Story drops the gentrification bomb on both of them: urban renewal as eminent domain theft. The Robert Moses-ization of the West Side in particular is how the film begins by craning down from the sky to land on a bulldozed construction site billboard of the future Lincoln Center – where at the Jazz complex with some intended irony the film held its premiere Monday night.

The stunning production and art design tilts a tad too much toward the firebombing of Dresden, as the crane cam swings down on the shell of a building on a steaming pile of rubble beneath wrecking balls everywhere. And cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) technicolor saturations are positively at the level of an addiction to heroin lollipops. Still, I was hooked. How gorgeous is this slum Brigadoon? How fitting that this production kept the faith with Bernstein by engaging the NY Philharmonic directed by Gustavo Dudamel to play the score, with some new arrangements by David Newman.

On his 90th birthday in March 2020, Sondheim told funny stories to NPR’s Terry Gross, one about how he’d wanted to drop the F-Bomb as the finale of the Jets’ hilarious: Gee Officer Krupke” number in 1957 but got sidelined by the money lady, who could live with the substitute, “Gee Officer Krupke, Krup You.” Which I happen to like better.

Famously, Sondheim hand-wrung over writing the lyrics for Puerto Ricans, most especially “I Feel Pretty” for Maria, which he thought didn’t match her circumstances so much as charmed a white Broadway audience. Rachel Zegler’s Maria sings it here in a new sequence of cleaning ladies on the night shift at Gimbels, not knowing what has happened to Tony and Bernardo in a road salt warehouse a scant mile away on the river. It is as moving as the day it was written. Love makes us all feel pretty. Youth makes us all feel pretty. It’s what takes us off the fire escape and over the rainbow. Feeling pretty in a war zone is what West Side Storyis all about.

I loved this West Side Story. You can answer the question of why now for yourself.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.