Some brief notes on Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Broadway musical and remake of the 1961 movie. I don’t have much to say about the alleged cinematic artistry of Spielberg, nor how I feel about his Disneyfication of West Side Story; the movie is exactly what you’d expect to come from Spielberg in 2021, and for some viewers that will be as pleasurable as it was tedious for me.
I went into the movie – and happily sat through its 156-minute run-time – because of my deep and abiding love for the music of Leonard Bernstein, and, for all of my fellow-admirers, this effort is no disappointment. West Side Story was a music triumph at its premiere, in 1957, and has gelatinised, in the most gratifying way, into a sterling classic, both in the worlds of musical theatre and classical music. I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone in thinking of Bernstein’s music as among the great achievements of American composers in the 20th century, and I was heartened to find that, as much as I didn’t enjoy what Spielberg was bringing to the work, I didn’t mind enduring it, because each time a song began in the movie, I sat with a large literal smile beaming all the way to the end.
The musical numbers for this movie were recorded by two of the best orchestras in the world, the New York Philharmonic (of which Bernstein was music director for 11 seasons, following the premiere of West Side Story) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and were conducted by the LA Phil’s charismatic and redoubtable Venezuelan music director, Gustavo Dudamel. There’s no question that these recordings are superior to those used in the 1961 movie; the Dudamel-led recordings have a big bright brassiness, gleaming sharp edges, sparkling interludes and vibrant accompaniments. The unfortunate step-down is to the sung performances. It’s pleasing to report that each of the main cast members is a competent singer, and I was especially impressed by the new talent Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, and can hold very high notes very delicately. But there’s no inflection, no distinctive moments of personal expression or imaginative interpretation, no sense of story or personality evoked in any of the vocal parts, however skillfully they keep Bernstein’s rhythms or navigate his melodies. Whether this is down to the lack of expressive abilities of the actors, or (more likely) a lack of experience in musical performance, or (almost definitely) the effects of direction from a filmmaker interested in only ever expressing one uncomplicated, highly sentimentalised feeling at a time, I can’t say for sure. It didn’t bother me much when I watched the movie, and there were visual aids to the storytelling in the songs. But the blandness of the performances became stark and distracting when I downloaded and listened to the movie soundtrack afterwards.
The flatness of these performances extends to their acting (again, nothing new in a Spielberg movie), but the dancing is a different tale, and was very impressive indeed on the big screen, if not entirely as pleasurable as the original choreography by Jerome Robbins. The choreography in the 2021 movie is more athletic, more virtuosic, and entirely de-eroticised from the 1961 movie; the social dance in the school gym has been cleansed of its steamy-stickiness, and its red-hot decor. The dance scenes, like the rest of the movie, come across as if from a grimy and sanctimonious High School Musical (with better songs and music overall).
And, on the topic of its sanctimony, it’s as difficult now, after seeing the movie, as before, to consider why it was ever thought necessary or worthwhile to do a remake of West Side Story. Spielberg has said that a large justification was the act of re-casting it, so that all Puerto Rican roles were played by Latinx performers. That’s definitely an improvement on the behind-the-scenes processes of the original, but it doesn’t make a better movie, and it shouldn’t be used as a major selling point for a studio product, as it has been in this case. Casting more Latinx performers doesn’t change the fact that the musical was conceived and written by a quartet of white Jewish New Yorkers (Bernstein, Robbins, the playwright and director Arthur Laurents, and the lyricist Stephen Sondheim), who knew nothing about the lives of the Puerto Rican characters they were writing about (and which isn’t helped by the fact that this new movie was directed by Spielberg, and written by Tony Kushner, two more white Jewish Americans with almost as little experience of Puerto Rican lives). It doesn’t change the fact that the white gang and the experiences of the white characters get more care and attention in the story (as well as more back-story in this new movie) than those of the Puerto Ricans – there’s a “Jet Song,” but no “Shark Song,” and a back-story for Tony, but none at all for Maria. Diversity in the movie is a superficial diversity; we see an array of skin tones, but not a deep and colourful diversity of lived experience. How much can we say that we really love a musical when the music itself is a towering achievement, but the drama surrounding it can only let it down?