Steven Spielberg succeeds in reviving a classic
In 2012 two Oscar-winning films were released: Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Two different films, the first a literary musical, the second, always based on a book, but with a more historical background. I remember watching them and thinking that both were missed opportunities for the directors: in my mind Victor Hugo’s novel deserved a canonical treatment, while Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book would have been less boring as a musical.
I don’t know if Steven Spielberg listened to my prayers, but 10 years after Lincoln he put his hands on a milestone: West Side Story. Not just a film, but the one who hasn’t been easy even for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins who, in 1961, brought to the big screen a musical coming from 4 years of success and reruns in Broadway. However, they did a great job if, 60 years later, most of us remember music and songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Spielberg takes a risk, aware of the fact there are younger viewers to satisfy and that, except for a few, most of them won’t see the original film. After the debut in the United States, on December 10, 2021, West Side Story hits Italian cinemas on December 23.
For those unfamiliar with it, here is the story: the film is set in New York City, in the 1950s, the slums of the West Side of Manhattan must be wiped out to build high-profile areas. Two rival gangs fight for the control of their neighborhood: the Jets, led by Riff, is made up of second generation European immigrants; the Sharks, led by Bernardo, consists of young Puerto Ricans. There is no way to pacify the groups and the gangs’ leaders take every opportunity to start a fight, including the neighborhood ball to be held shortly thereafter. On this occasion Tony and Maria meet for the first time: Tony is Riff’s best friend and an ex-con who started a new life; Maria is Bernardo’s eighteen year old sister. They like each other, they don’t want to be involved with gangs and racial prejudices, they just want to be together. The Jets and the Sharks, however, won’t make it easy: Riff wants his friend to stop seeing Maria and return to fight for his neighborhood; Bernardo wants his sister to hang out with Puerto Ricans and hates Tony without even knowing him.
Even after 60 years, the themes of West Side Story are relevant: ghettoisation, the desire for social redemption, the hope of those who want to live the “American dream” and the resignation of those who are already withdrawn, even before they even start to live. Spielberg preserves the spirit of this very powerful story, a tale of foreigners in a foreign land, of young people who are living in the same poverty, but feel different from each other. Then there are Tony and Maria, with their unconditional love, that try to save their friends and the whole world with all the strength of their twenties.
Visually, Spielberg gives West Side Story a period film flavor but never constantly: from the sets to costumes, he alternates soft and bright colors, adjusting the light accordingly; a way to remind us that we are in 2021, after all.
Also, we have to remember that this story is told to the rhythm of Bernstein’s music, this time masterfully adapted and rearranged by David Newman: thanks to his work, Spielberg’s West Side Story pays homage to the original without offending it and the actors sing without duplicating. The ensemble cast, led by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler (who play Tony and Maria), do an extraordinary job. A talented Arianna DeBose plays Anita, the role that in 1961, earned Rita Moreno an Oscar: she is also in the cast playing a new character, Valentina.
Spielberg completes the rebirth of a classic, in one of the rare times a filmmaker succeeds in such a challenge.