A Place For Us
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
When I was a young film nerd, I thought of Steven Spielberg as the PC to Martin Scorsese’s Mac. (People still remember those commercials, right?) You could put other directors in the Scorsese slot, but Spielberg was always the face of MOR/LCD cinema: technically great — probably no one else on earth could make a rubber shark movie that was a global smash instead of a MST3K gag — but soulless and vapid. I assumed he knew this about himself, and that was why he kept chasing signifiers of soul and seriousness like The Color Purple and Schindler’s List.
I was certainly a jacked-up little shit, but I still think I was onto something. On reconsideration Spielberg is no mere Windows unit (and Macs, I have finally come to realize, aren’t so hot themselves). No one, even a hack, could make movies as prolifically and energetically as Spielberg without acquiring some idea of the world that he wanted to portray. The first late Spielberg to capture my attention and admiration was Catch Me If You Can, which I found not only accomplished and charming, but also serious about roleplaying, maturity, and fathers and sons. It ain’t Red River; he doesn’t have it in him. But still. Since then I’ve looked at his work off and on (see my reviews of Munich, Lincoln, and The Post) and while I still prefer termites to white elephants I’m a lot more tolerant of the Tradition of Quality than I used to be. Hell, half the big movies these days are about comic books; even Stanley Kramer’s looking good to me.
Now we have West Side Story, Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 Oscar-winner — a white elephant if ever there was one. You all know the story, and probably the movie, about the Montagues and the Capulets as highly romanticized New York street gangs from the late 50s, the Sharks and the Jets, and the doomed love of Tony from the white Jets and Maria from the periphery of the Puerto Rican Sharks. If nothing else you know the Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein songs, which are not only classics of their kind but among the wellsprings of late 20th Century American pop music.
Given the sixty years that have passed since the 1961 West Side Story — co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, though it’s accepted that Robbins’ credit is for the original Broadway staging Wise mostly imported, including the famous dances — you may wonder what Spielberg brings to the property. Mainly he has opened it up, in the old-fashioned sense of breaking down the physical limits of the play and the first film, giving the camera and the actors more movement and more vistas to play against. He has also worked in some style and signifiers that might make it easier for audiences not raised on older film conventions to access the story.
I can’t speak for the new jacks, but it worked for me. It turns out Spielberg’s great technical skills and limited artistic vision are perfect for what amounts to a very good revival of a classic.
The script by Tony Kushner, the Angels in America wunderkind who has collaborated with Spielberg a few times before this, mainly leaves the story be. He understands the poetic imperative in Arthur Laurents’ elevated 50s juvenile-delinquent speech and tonally matches it, not trying to Mamet it up for moderns; the only real added swear I recall is “bullshit,” used once. (The gangs are a bit more feral and menacing than in ’61, though; when Bernardo catches Tony with his sister at the dance it seems a lot more likely that he might kill him on the spot.)
Also the bones of the story remain: Maria is forbidden by her fiercely anti-Anglo brother and head of the Sharks Bernardo to date Tony, a former Jets leader who’s trying to get above the gang scene, but they are drawn together, and their love is ultimately destroyed by the mutual hatred and racial animosity of the gangs.
But Kushner adds some new backstory points, ranging from sure-why-not to revelatory: The setting for “Gee Officer Krupke” is a station house to which Krupke abandons the Jets to pursue a crook, which, nah (though the number is good). We get that Riff, the hyperactive and hyperverbal Sharks’ leader, is not just an orphan but, Tony’s and Riff’s comments suggest, the product of profound childhood trauma. (Mike Faist’s playing of Riff is not so much ebullient in the Russ Tamblyn manner as suggestive of ADHD.) Also, Tony is revealed to have done time for almost killing a guy during a rumble, which better explains than the original did his reluctance to get mixed up with the gang again — though it does also make us wonder how, as besotted as she is, Maria doesn’t decide to take this relationship a little slower. (It was easier to believe Tony and Maria would go for it in the original because Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood both seemed a bit dim.)
Something I especially liked is the extension of Lieutenant Schrank’s early speech to the Jets; instead of just telling the kids to “make nice with the PRs” so they don’t make trouble for him (one white guy to another), he sticks the needle in: the Jets’ parents are the immigrants, he says, who didn’t have the brains or guts to move out — leaving their kids “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians.” One day, Schrank predicts, referring to the luxury Lincoln Tower apartments that are coming once their neighborhood has been thoroughly urban-renewed, if the Jets are even still around then they’ll find themselves shooed away from the rich people’s doorsteps by “Puerto Rican doormen.” Ouch.
The biggest switcheroo is changing Tony’s employer from Doc, the elderly obvious-Jew of the original, to Valentina, Doc’s widow and inheritor of his candy shop —played by Rita Moreno, the original Anita — and giving her a crucial song that’s normally Tony’s and Maria’s. While I understand the intended comment on racial conflict, and was content to gaze upon Moreno’s magnificence for the length of it, this is not only lily-gilding at its most egregious, but both raises historical questions (a Jew married to a Puerto Rican on the West Side in what would have been the 1930s?) and conjures visions of Moreno married to Ned Glass.
(Oh, also, the “tomboy” Jets hanger-on Anybody’s is portrayed as trans, which makes total sense if you think about the character for ten seconds.)
The story really floats on the musical numbers, which is where Spielberg brings the biggest changes. Choreographer Justin Peck retains stretches of Robbins’ original breakthrough dances, which is wise — when the Jets are walking together at the beginning and one, then two of them slip into tombés, suddenly elevating the street movement into ballet, that’s as iconic and as effective as anything in movies; you’d be a fool to change that. But the original film, apart from some famous montages (one of which, the reprise of “Tonight,” Spielberg basically lifts), is remarkably stagebound — a calculated move, since the Robbins dances were made for small spaces and work best in them, and in 1961 everyone wanted to see that.
Opening the numbers up requires more purely athletic dancing, so you lose some of the Robbins balleticism when, for example, “America” is transposed from a rooftop to the city streets. But the wild energy of the movement and the music (the new orchestration for which, I notice, has more prominent guiro and claves) is exhilarating even for people who aren’t Broadway musical nerds — and still an artifact of great craft and discipline. I figure it’s a fair trade.
Of course, if you already love West Side Story, everything you loved is still there. The new Tony and Maria, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, have great chemistry, and give the impression that they can make one another see beyond the ugliness around them. It turns out that, despite my earlier joke, you don’t have to think they’re stupid to believe they would risk everything for love — you just have to believe that love is worth the risk. That’s what they ask of each other, and what the song asks of you — hold my hand and I’ll take you there. I cried like a child at the song, at their fate, and at the whole thing, all over again. In my book that makes it a success.