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West Side Story

(SPOILERS) Spielberg’s West Side Story remake isn’t merely redundant; it’s a lifeless, mechanical VR machine version of the original, the kind of soulless facsimile you’d expect to find discarded in some corner of his other recent, empty attempt at recapturing youthful brio, Ready Player One. The director previously dipped a toe in musical waters with the dance-hall tumble of 1941 and the opening number from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; both set pieces tantalised the prospect of his tackling an entire movie with such energy and aplomb. But they were forty-odd years ago, and he’s no longer the same eager geek. Now he’s drearily respectable, a slave to conformity, esteem and papering over the gaping cracks in his domestic sphere. Plus, he has the ball and chain that is Janusz Kamiński as his DP.

For all his slide into “adult” mediocrity, a glutton for worthy subject matter and constant validation, relatively few of Spielberg’s movies are complete write offs: Always; Hook; Amistad; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; The BFG. And now this. Ironically, some on that list are less-than-glittering examples of his self-conscious attempts at rekindling the essence of his initial, formidable strides as a moviemaker. His lust for glory ultimately cancelled out that quality and, never being much of an intellect, all he had left was variably effective political or philosophical discourse.

Consequently, when the Beard scratched his musical itch, it had to be a movie that said something important NOW. No matter that Robert Wise’s West Side Story was a Best Picture Oscar winner, one with unbeatable choreography. I’m mixed-positive on the movie, but at the same time, there are absolutely no legitimate grounds to remake it; nothing therein could be bettered by another, unless that other decided to start from scratch, effectively the way Bernstein, Sondheim and Robbins did with Romeo and Juliet.

Spielberg had no such aspirations, hence the utterly bereft decision to set West Side Story in the same decade as the previous movie, but with added apocalyptic dread (the cityscape is crumbling, just the same as the social infrastructure). If you must have end-of-the-world fervour during gang dust ups, try the climax of Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers, rather than this dyspeptic mouthwash.

And on the subject of mouthwash, Kamiński’s cinematography is as ghastly as ever. This has to be the ugliest musical ever made (and I’m not referring to directorial acumen; obviously, Rob Marshall is clueless in that regard, but at least he has a concept of colour). I’ve been watching Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity as a palate cleanser, and whatever that picture’s faults, you’re in no doubt you’re in the company of a master of musical form, choreography and composition. No such luck here. Spielberg has been approving Kamiński’s overcast, gauzy vision for decades now, be it skies or any given light source. Diffuse sunlight, diffuse spotlights. Everything is desaturated, even when the colours are supposed to be vibrant. It’s as if he employs a chemtrail filter to block out all natural light; generations to come, accustomed to a complete absence of natural light, will say “See, it was like this in the early 21st century too”. And what made the Berg think all the ubiquitous lens flares had any business in a musical? Absurdly, West Side Story has received a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination.

There’s some decent choreography here, to be sure. But it isn’t vibrant or charged; it’s going through the motions. It never wows you, not in the way Jerome Robbins’ contributions to the original did. But then Spielberg, who as we know grew up on the mean streets, is trying to make this version that bit grittier, positing his tragic fantasia in the real world. Or a real world.

The result only ever feels like a version of a version, from someone long-since disconnected with how to go about telling a tale in a fresh way (we’ve seen this a lot with his movies across a range of subject matter of late, be it SF, biopics or the Cold War) The picture, and consequently its cast, are utterly charmless. Technically, West Side Story is all-round competent – in as much as hitting marks, high notes and achieving a degree of mis-en-scene, for what that’s worth – but it’s a tepid remix. Ostensibly, none of that matters, though. What’s important is that the Beard gets to proclaim this one’s unquestionable legitimacy by casting actual Puerto Ricans (except for the lead, who is Colombian, so putting Fox, now Disney, reliably in the shit there).

Inevitably, in thrall as the Berg is to adulation, even when it reveals him as hopelessly out of touch (how many of his movies have been big hits in the past decade?), West Side Story flies the virtue-signalling flag. Spielberg so woke (after all, what could be woker than the stable upbringing he evidently provided his adoptive daughter?) The material already explores or lends itself to such themes: of racism, toxic masculinity, even gender identity. Tomboy Anybodys is now a trans character played by iris menas (hey, it makes for a talking point. Hence whole articles that can devote themselves to the subject and even end with a straight-faced line like “… a character who is allowed to chart a different path, to ultimately reject the most toxic aspects of masculinity, and survive”. The hoops you have to jump through to say the correctly couched thing!)

Armand White, really out there as he often is, but relishable as one of the few critics to sing his own tune, may the heavens fall, slated the picture under the header “The Wokening of Steven Spielberg". He commented “when Spielberg… mixes realism with song-and-dance sequences, the result is not fake realism but wokeness. Instead of being a musical love story it’s a social-consciousness musical… P.C. Spielberg can’t avoid the obstacle that West Side Story was too traditional, too hetero for today’s race and gender wars. Why didn’t he remake A Chorus Line instead?” Tickled as I’d be to see the latter – the original a flop made by Sir Dickie, no less – White has a point. There’s no sense Spielberg has a clear idea what he is doing here, mainly because what he did was start with “I’d like to remake a classic musical” and then try to justify its existence as a movie in 2021 (or 2019).

Such foregrounding would doubtless be less conspicuous if the love story worked. For all that the visuals are cockeyed and the socio-political focus is skewy, West Side Story fails so profoundly because you don’t care even a bit about Tony and Maria. There’s no chemistry between Elgort and Zegler. Both are entirely serviceable in performance terms, but more than technical acumen is crucial. Elgort doesn’t really convince as either a street kid or a rage machine (he’s also been thrown under a #MeToo bus, of course). Zegler looks too young; she more closely resembles a performing doll than a star-crossed lover. Natalie Wood may not have been the greatest actress in the world (and less of a singer), but I believed her Maria.

Maybe Spielberg didn’t really care. When has he actually tried to tell a love story before? Always went well. Indeed, when Tony beckons “Maria!” to the tenements above, and an actual child’s head pops up at a window in response, I thought yup, that’s the E.T., Poltergeist and Hook "kid-friendly" auteur at work. Mike Faist (Riff), David Alvarez (Bernado) – you may believe they could lead gangs, but you never want to like either of them, particularly Faist – Arian DeBose (Anita), even Zegler and Elgort, are all reasonable players in their own ways, but none of them leap out and grab, or knife, you.

A benefit of the original movie was that the slightly heightened performances engendered an internally consistent tone. Here, the only consistency is how unpleasant Kamiński makes it look. Rita Moreno returns in a Spielberg shout out, in what was formerly the Doc part; this serves to emphasise Tony as the rehabilitated only formerly racist gang member and menace to society (Elgort needs all the emphasis he can get). Only really Corey Stoll suggests an idea of an actor who can hold a scene, but he has barely more than cameo as Lieutenant Schrank.

For a brief spell, Spielberg succeeds in threading a trace of engagement, but it isn’t between his lead protagonists. The thread of trust/distrust between Tony and Riff leads to the sequence in which Tony takes the latter’s gun and then loses it, a rare occasion when the musicality sustains narrative tension; this continues, by and large, until the end of the rumble. Evidently, Spielberg’s first-hand insights into gang culture made for a grittier take.

But for all that Spielberg has upped the “laudable” aspects of the story, he’s also ironed out the wrinkles. The incestuous vibe of George Chakiris’ Bernando, in his desire to “protect” Wood’s Maria, was palpable in Wise’s movie; here, he’s concerned strictly with the business of identity politics. Later still, the attempted rape of Anita is stronger stuff – this time, Anybodys is clearly excluded from any degree of complicity, since there can be no hint of a blurring of lines – but is that such a feather in the movie’s bow? Well done, Steven, you pushed the envelope. Particularly since, as White noted, there’s an odd push-pull in such details, such that Moreno duly comes out and scolds the Jets, who are now suddenly chastened (“…and you have grown into rapists!”) It’s the kind of moment that throws the material back into an actual ’50s movie. Spielberg may have felt the brakes were off anyway, since recent stage adaptations have gone much further.

Four of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees are remakes, but it’s West Side Story and del Toro’s Nightmare Alley that carry with them the least raison d’être, beyond major studios indulging their statuette-adorned makers’ whims. That both have been substantial flops ought to put the dampeners on such extravagance in future (unless Netflix is footing the bill). There’s a further nostalgic foray for the director next, in the form of autobiographical tale The Fablemens. Perhaps Spielberg has enough bona-fide hits in the bank that some studio will continue to finance him going forward, no matter how out of touch and unprofitable his choices are.

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