I grew up going to the movies. Mostly alone because none of my friends were ready to embrace the type of cinema I was enjoying as an adventurous 9-year-old.
My sister was a movie theater usher in 1961 at the historic Hollywood Cinerama Theater in Northwest Portland, Oregon. I got in for free and she introduced me to my first musical, “West Side Story,”
I became obsessed with Robert Wise’s legendary Oscar-winning film. We wore out the LP at home, memorized most of the score, and soon realized it featured the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of a young Steven Sondheim.
It also made me slightly uncomfortable watching the Jets and the Sharks dancing on the streets of New York wearing lip gloss and tennis shoes.
“Boy, boy, crazy boy,
Stay loose, boy.
Breeze it, buzz it,
Easy does it,
Turn off the juice, boy.
Go, man, go,
But not like a yoyo schoolboy.
Just play it cool, boy,
To this day, I remain loyal and slightly fanatical to the original. After all, it won 10 Academy Awards back in the day.
Fast forward to the CURRENT pandemic and the realization that Steven Spielberg would even dare to re-make, re-do, re-write, or re-imagine such a magnificent work of cinematic art.
All I can say is, “I’m thrilled he did.”
Twenty minutes into “West Side Story” I found myself welling up with tears, not because I was sad, but because the film was so damn good.
The opening musical number is both familiar and different from the original in that it tells the backstory of a neighborhood being demolished to build what is now known as, “Lincoln Center.” There is a reason why the Sharks and the Jets are in the middle of a turf war since the actual turf is shrinking. The camera work in the opening sequence is breathtaking.
Tony Kushner’s re-working of the screenplay is immensely fulfilling making the Sharks less of a cliche and more real to life. It’s nice to see a period film where people actually look like the people they are representing rather than over-caked with make-up to hide or enhance skin color.
They did that a lot back then in westerns and biblical epics. “The Searchers” (1953), “Apache” (1954), The Lone Ranger (2013), “The Ten Commandments (1956), “Cleopatra” (1963), “The Robe” (1953).
The 1961 original musical featured an Oscar-winning performance by Rita Morena as Anita and don’t be surprised if she wins again for playing the shop owner. It’s a smart twist in a smart film.
But watch Adriana DeBose actually win the Academy Award in March for playing the same role. She lights up the screen as a singer, actress, dancer, and infuses every frame with attitude and expertise. Be amazed now while still respecting what Rita Moreno brought to the film back then.
David Alvarez is equally compelling as Bernardo, and so is Rachel Zegler as the young, impressionable, fully in love, Maria, along with Ansel Elgort as the geeky, slightly awkward Tony. These people can sing.
It’s refreshing to know all of the actors in “West Side Story” sing and dance their way through Bernstein and Sondheim’s difficult material with such confidence and force it’s easy to forget that wasn’t true in the original.
Natalie Wood (Maria) couldn’t handle the music vocally so her singing voice was dubbed over by the legendary Marnia Nixon.
Richard Beymer (Tony) was dubbed over by Jimmy Bryant, and Russ Tamblyn was partially dubbed over by Tucker Smith.
Kudos to Steven Spielberg for tackling a film most people thought was off-limits to remake. What’s next, “Lawrence Of Arabia?”
I hope not.
But, directors make thousands of creative decisions during the course of a film, and Spielbergs’ movie is filled with magnificent choices.
I loved the camera work, the tweaking of a few musical notes, the updated dialogue, and the effort to more fully represent what we all look like as we walk (or in this case sing) our way around the planet.
Don’t trust bad reviews, disappointing box office numbers, or people who refuse to watch musicals because for some reason they never had a sister who took them to see one as a child.
This may be the best film I have seen all year.