Patrick Mulcahy on Spielberg’s West Side Story

Director Steven Spielberg has reached the point in his career when he doesn’t have to prove himself anymore. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was the joint godfather of blockbuster cinema alongside Star Wars creator George Lucas but, unlike Lucas, hankered after the acceptance of Oscar voters. He achieved this in the 1990s with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, whilst never compromising his visceral, populist style of filmmaking. At his best, Spielberg takes his audience into a situation and puts them through the wringer. In E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial, his best film, he reduced them to tears. Spielberg is not instinctively a political filmmaker, though he has tackled political subjects – slavery in Amistad and Lincoln, East-West relations in Bridge of Spies, even statelessness in The Terminal. In these films, he is not overtly arguing for political change, rather celebrating values worth cultivating – compassion and tolerance. In the last five years, he has become more overtly political, retelling period stories that have a contemporary, specifically anti-Trump message. In his 2017 film The Post, a prequel to the Watergate scandal thriller, All The President’s Men, he venerated free press at a time when President Trump dismissed facts as ‘fake news’. With his remake of the Oscar-winning 1961 musical, West Side Story, he argues for harmonious co-existence in direct opposition to the racial demonising of Trump’s ‘America First’ policy.

The bravura opening – a partial tracking shot, partial ballet featuring the white, delinquent Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) stealing paint from the building site of the Lincoln Center in Manhattan and making their way uptown to deface the Puerto Rican flag on 72nd Street – sets up the central conflict between two social groups with distinctly oppositional outlooks. The Puerto Rican Spanish-speaking residents are focussed on being integrated, with dreams of moving into new housing units. The Jets resent the gentrification of their neighbourhood, with Spanish-speaking businesses replacing those run by the descendants of Polish and Irish immigrants. Interestingly, Spielberg – himself a low-culture guy – shows high culture being one of the drivers of slum clearance that the Jets resent. For its own part, West Side Story is a blend of high and low culture that takes as its departure point the plot of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but stumbles trying to replicate its twists.

The film’s Romeo, Tony (Ansel Elgort, fresh from his success in Baby Driver), is a damaged anti-hero. Newly released from prison – he was sentenced for a year for almost killing a man – Tony is determined to abandon violence. The extremely tall Elgort looks suitably different from the other Jets. Maria (Rachel Zegler), his Puerto Rican love interest, is the sister of head Shark Bernardo (David Alvarez), a young boxer. They live with Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose, in a role made famous by Rita Moreno). Moreno herself appears as Valentina, Tony’s employer. She attempts to exert a positive influence. Tony and Maria meet at a school dance, the former breaking curfew with apparently no consequence.

The attraction between Tony and Maria ignites a gangland war, though Riff and his pals, spoiling for a fight, need no such catalyst. Jets and Sharks confront each other in a warehouse amongst salt stacks, where Tony’s attempt to diffuse the situation makes things worse.

The faults of the film are entirely down to the plotting, with the original book writer, Arthur Laurents, hidebound by Shakespeare. The saving grace, by some distance, are the musical numbers. It is a real pleasure to hear Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (set to Leonard Bernstein’s music) clearly enunciated. They deepen the film’s themes and move the action along.

The film is clearly on the side of the Sharks, yet Maria rejects her Puerto Rican accountant date, Chino (Josh Andrés Riviera) in favour of Tony. We don’t completely believe in Tony and Maria’s attraction. Their romance is clearly intended to heal the rift between the two gangs – and society in general – but Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, don’t sufficiently problematise the Sharks.

The police are a central presence, breaking up fights and reminding the Jets that other white folks will move into condominiums with Puerto Ricans serving as doormen. However, the ‘Hey Officer Krupke’ song satirises society’s treatment of juvenile delinquency as the Jets embrace environmental determinism.

The finale doesn’t have the emotional impact of Spielberg’s best work, but the film has numerous pleasures, including full frame shots of the dance numbers. Most of the musical set pieces are rooted in story points, though Maria’s department store performance of ‘I Feel Pretty’ is superfluous. For the number to work, Maria would have to be portrayed as less attractive than the other neighbourhood girls and more neglected, so that Tony sees in her something that other Puerto Rican boys do not.

You won’t cry at the end of Spielberg’s remake. However, you will still be entertained.

West Side Story is currently in cinemas

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