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Oh man, without a gang, you're an orphan.

West Side Story
(1961)

(SPOILERS) Why the hell is Spielberg remaking this? Does he somehow think that, from on high in his Hollywood ivory tower, he has the keen insight to imbue some of the realism lacking in the Robert Wise/ Jerome Robbins Best Picture Oscar winner (well, it is a musical)? Or that, with today’s marginally keener eye for ethnicity-appropriate casting – if you aren’t Ridley Scott – this alone is good enough reason to retread ground there’s no earthly reason to (this at least appears to be part of it; that and he loved it as a teen, the soft-headed sop)? I don’t think West Side Story represents the unalloyed perfection its ten Oscars might suggest, but I have great difficulty in working out quite what the Berg thinks he’s going to achieve, aside from unflattering comparisons. If in doubt, he should go ask Gus van Sant.

Of course, Spielberg also cites going back to the stage original for source material as one of the key ways his envisioning will be different. He might have gone back further, to the Will Shakespeare original, but Baz Lurhmann embellished on that one two decades ago, further casting doubt on the value of a revisit. Spielberg, for all his plundering, has steered mostly clear of remakes, but when he hasgone there, the results have been mixed if not to say arbitrary. As in, why precisely did you feel the need, Steven? His Twilight Zone: The Movie segment (Kick the Can) was easily the weakest of that collection, while Always, at least a redo of a not-that-beloved picture (A Guy Named Joe) was mostly inert. And War of the Worlds, well, I guess it wasn’t a period pic, but I didn’t really buy those foisting acclaim on it for the 9/11-War on Terror subtext. So why, really? I suspect it ultimately comes down to his still having that musical itch to scratch, having only got as far as sticking his toe on the dancefloor with sequences in 1941 and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and that, with regular DP Janusz Kaminski profoundly unsuited to bright, fluffy, carefree fare, he settled on a musical that would more suit his accomplice’s dour sensibility.

I regularly quote Pauline Kael in my reviews, mainly because, agree with her or not (often not), she more often than not came up with enormously readable (and quotable) takes on the movies she saw. And when she was laying into a critical darling, the results could be especially choice. Kael did not like West Side Story, to put it mildly. Most amusingly, her reasons for loathing it, on at least several points, were the very reasons I found myself drawn to the picture, at an impressionable young age.

Kael does, I think, get rather carried away preordaining the prerequisites of a good musical (“the light satire, the giddy romance, the low comedy and the unpretentious stylised dancing…”) while simultaneously sounding like a bit of old fuddy, bemoaning the noise West Side Story makes and furnishing a dismissive take on the quality of the songs and choreography, as well as lobbing some low balls by complaining about how it lacks the poetic language of Shakespeare (no shit – or spit, if you’re a Jet). But she also sniffed “Well, it’s a good musical for people who don’t like musicals” – which is me, basically. And she further sniffed, or excoriated, the very being of star Natalie Wood, whom I was completely besotted with at first sight; “Natalie Wood is the newly-constructed love-goddess – so perfectly banal she destroys all thoughts of love”. Not content with that, Kael goes on to negatively compare her performance as Maria to the robot Maria in Metropolis. Ouch.

But she also makes a number of fair comments, although you have to assume certain caveats to be on board with them. Such as the seriousness of a review claiming that, through the medium of dance “we are seeing street gangs for the first time as they really are” (an idea she scorns, although she is taking it very literally; again, this is a musical). Kael goes on to question the gang’s racial composition, being that “one group has their faces and hair darkened, and the other group has gone wild for glittering yellow hair dye”; and what can you say in response, other than nod in silent agreement? She also calls out the insufferable moral rectitude of Doc (Ned Glass, his character to be rewritten as Rita Moreno in the Berg’s version, Moreno having played Anita here), “a sweet, kindly, harmless old Jew full of prophetic cant” who intones “When do you kids stop? You made this world lousy!” Kael levels the charge that “this is a movie that pretends to deal with racial tensions”. But to be fair, I’d suggest that, if you approach West Side Story with modest expectations, you won’t come away upset that it failed to change the world. Still, all this ought to be food for Spielbergian thought, as he’s going to expose himself to the same kind of pitfalls, only sixty years on.

The first time I saw West Side Story, I thought it played a blinder, and I was entirely engrossed and affected by its tragic turn (this as someone who doesn’t like musicals, albeit I also enjoyed The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof; perhaps I only like Best Picture Oscar winning musicals?) I’ve seen it a couple of times since, and one charge I’d direct its way is one I’d also direct at Will Shakespeare, to be honest; the central romance is fairly insipid. Wood is and was as delightful a newly-constructed love-goddess as ever (even if she did keep a shitlist in her dressing room), but Richard Beymer, probably through no fault of his own – he was told to play Tony as a vanilla nice guy rather than with an edge – is on the bland side. It’s difficult to really fall for a tragic romance if you aren’t fully captivated by the fates of the star-crossed lovers.

Indeed, as is often the case when a romance doesn’t quite hit the spot, the consequence is that the greatest pleasures come from the supporting cast. Rita Moreno (actually Puerto Rican, so that was something) is full of vigour as Anita, girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris – both won supporting performer Oscars). Chakiris is fine, although Bernardo’s protective brother routine during early scenes gives off a barely-concealed incestuous vibe. Russ Tamblyn, like Beymer later to grace Twin Peaks, makes an unlikely but spirited Jets leader Riff; it’s particularly odd to see him here having been more familiar with his Dr Jacobi.

On the debit side, there’s also a noticeable lag – in a movie that is very content to take its sweet time anyway – post-rumble, during which the picture fails to dig in to the rising tensions (ironically, since Wise and Robbins rearranged the positions of some songs in order to double down on exactly this). Three or four of the numbers are classics, which is enough to make up for the ones that are merely average – America (“Industry boom in America, twelve in a room in America”), Maria, I Feel Pretty, Somewhere, and then there’s the amusing Gee, Officer Krupke (with several risqué sex and drugs references to drugs: “with all their marijuana, they won’t give me a puff”) – although nothing subsequently can beat the tag choreography of the opening location work.

Kael’s take is partly flawed through reviewing the critical response – or its peer response, since it comes from an analysis of its Best Picture triumph – rather than the content itself, decrying its perceive pretentiousness in being “devoted to the serious theme of the brotherhood of man” (so encouraging a run of such movies). If the tail were wagging the dog of West Side Story, that might be an issue, but it still essentially has Francis Bacon’s play as its spine. West Side Story may not be perfect, but it’s more than good enough to preclude any need for a pallid remount, particularly from a director a good decade and a half past his peak. Wise was at his when he made it (and a spring chicken of 46); in the next couple of years, he’d follow it with classic horror The Haunting and all-time biggest-grossing musical The Sound of Music to prove this was no flash in the pan. Spielberg’s version will have to do half a billion Stateside alone to equal the original’s success, quite aside from the creative rod he’s created for his back; he may well come away wishing he hadn’t delayed Indy V.






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