Friday, December 10, 2021

Got a Feeling There's a Miracle Due: WEST SIDE STORY

Now this is a movie. I’d almost forgotten they could still be like this: thoughtful and heartfelt, big and bold, theatrical and emotional, expertly, sturdily made at every level of craft and soul. In re-adapting the Broadway classic West Side Story, Steven Spielberg has made a widescreen spectacle full to bursting with intelligence, energy, and ideas. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that Spielberg is one of the very few left working on this level in Hollywood. He knows what to do with the camera at every moment—to express, to surprise, to reveal, to move. Take the opening shot, for instance. Unlike the bird’s-eye view of a skyline that greets audiences in 1961’s Robert Wise take on the material—a classic in its own right, if more proficient than exceptional—Spielberg’s starts on debris. A building has been torn down. It’s 1957, the same year the musical debuted. What was once a tenement building has been leveled for a new complex. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a sign announces. Immediately we’ve been given a richer context for this Romeo and Juliet amid the gang clashes on city streets between new immigrant Puerto Ricans and the slightly older immigrant ethnic Whites. The cauldron of racial intolerance has been set to boiling by the encroaching economic and real estate displacement. And how poignant, too, that what will take over this neighborhood will be the same places that would perform projects of the kind we’re watching now.

I found this adaptation almost indescribably moving, even on simply the craft level. How sadly rare to be at a major studio release and find it overflowing with ideas and emotions communicated visually in every moment, to hear a soaring musical score robustly arranged and conducted to swell and underline and develop. Spielberg’s a master craftsman, no doubt. He has his usual crew—cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and so on—up to their usual best. So of course it’s an untrammeled success on the technical level. Ah, but then there’s the justice they do to the material. What could be stale or overfamiliar is instead enlivened anew. As it unfolds I suddenly saw it for the first time in all the fullness of style and sentiment that audiences must’ve felt when it first appeared on stage. More than the original adaptation’s robust technical skill, Spielberg draws out the deep wells of emotion, the crisp cleverness of the late, great lyricist Steven Sondheim’s precociously poetic rat-a-tat puns and rhymes standing at pleasing angles from the sumptuous Leonard Bernstein jazz-and-Latin rhythmic symphonic score. Spielberg, with screenwriter Tony Kushner (the Angels in America writer who wrote Munich and Lincoln for him), also does justice to the Shakespearean dimensions, and knows the musical’s book by Arthur Laurents is best played like other pieces of mid-century modern melodramas a la Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. The result is a movie that’s in constant fluid motion and boisterous feeling, an effortlessly complex crowd-pleaser that never feels the need to stoop or slow for simplicity’s sake.

It helps, I’m sure, that the story is so strong and clear, and Kushner’s writing is perceptively and sharply adapted. He doesn’t push overmuch on the original, and instead surfaces and shines light anew on ideas and tensions already present in this classic work, as well as restoring some of the grit to the language. With vivid period details in all their glorious colors and textures, the movie has the social conditions of the times through the benefit of hindsight, with a great sense of historical context and cultural space. There’s that opening with the gentrification in progress. It introduces the gangs—the Sharks and the Jets—tussling over signs and paintings and flags—signifiers of shifting demographics amid the construction sites on blocks where fresh Spanish-language signage is side-by-side with rusting, fading Irish clovers. It’s a place where people are feeling muscled out by some Other or another. They’re all dwarfed by and forged in class resentments, but have turned to racial recriminations to feel a sense of futile control. The white gang is a simmering rage machine, puffed up with false superiority and dripping in presumptuous racist and misogynistic impulses. The Puerto Ricans have pride of their place and people, and feel justified outrage at the pushback they’re getting from some of their neighbors. The movie gives them greater voice—lots of colloquial Spanish and Spanglish in the dialogue is left unsubtitled and perfectly legible through powerful performances—and understands without excusing the gang’s sometimes-violent territorialism. The two gangs are on a clear collision course. That opening shot pushes past a wrecking ball on its way to revealing its characters in the midst of the muck. We know something’s coming.

Into this is introduced romance that structures the swooning early sequences and the weeping tragedy of the finale. After all, Tony, a white boy leaving the gang and hoping to make good (Ansel Elgort), is the Romeo to the Juliet who is Maria (Rachel Zegler), a Puerto Rican teenager looking for more in her life. They meet at a community dance, and their desire to dance becomes a flashpoint between the hot-headed Jets (led by Mike Faist) and the Sharks, whose leader (David Alvarez) is Maria’s boxer brother. The performers are universally wonderful, with Alvarez matched well with Ariana DeBose as his strong-willed long-time girlfriend playing fine counterpoint to the main couple. They get the centerpiece number “America,” with its bristling satiric syncopation, a classic back and forth that Spielberg films first through courtyard clotheslines that become clever shifting curtains, then spills out into the street with vibrant colors and sensations.

Tony and Maria’s love is softer, simpler, filmed in longing duets and yearning ballads—from “Maria” and “Tonight” to “One Hand, One Heart”—each given a full flowering of adolescent intensity. Zegler, in her first professional role, has a wide-eyed freshness, a dreamy gentility and innocence behind which sits a backbone of steel. Elgort, for his part, takes the baby-faced pathos that made him sympathetic in The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver and gives it the slightest Brando-adjacent edge of softened danger. Their love-at-first-sight is believable, and their desire drives and heightens everything that follows. Their balcony scene uses the bars of a fire escape to keep them separated—so close and yet so far—while other moments find streetlights turn a puddle into a gleaming spotlight of stars from overhead, or a stained-glass window lending a wooing an impromptu sense of something holy and right in the face of so much potential strife. Their friends and families are fighting because of them, and as the stakes grow deadlier, the drama around their potential future tips near bittersweet, and then on toward doomed.

Spielberg knows how to balance and build in interest and mood, with songs and sequences light and dark, characters raw and real in heightened drama bursting forth in snappy and soaring song. The film has a complexity in style and tone that’s so easy and entertainment so pure that it looks effortless. His filmmaking in every single moment—every note, every frame, every shot—communicates and imposes without showing off. He’s in total control, a virtuoso maestro of his collaborators behind and in front of the camera. His style is always like this at his best (and he so often is at his best), a strong hand with a light touch, what Pauline Kael compared to “a boy soprano singing with joy.” At 75, his movies have all the visual wit, sumptuous long takes, briskly blocked movement within the frame, clever cutting, and exuberant energy of a young cinephile enthused by the very prospect of making a movie and playing an audience. And yet he has the grandfatherly storyteller’s beneficence to engage deeply in the feelings and perspectives with subtly and nuance. It can make for one beautiful cohesive piece, so expertly accomplished and modulated. Played loud, there’s music playing. Played softly, it’s almost like praying.

It sings the most tenderly in quiet intimate moments and gruff arguments alike, and it comes alive in the kind of big, bustling group numbers that put any musical since MGM’s Freed Unit to shame. They impress with their energy, velocity, and shape, building in momentum with muscular screen choreography designed in homage to Jerome Robbins’ athletic approach. Showstoppers all, they’re refreshingly photographed to appreciate every step and gesture, to emphasize the skill and expressiveness, to highlight the unencumbered precision and joy. (He’s such a great director of action, from Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park, it’s no surprise.) Spielberg has this studio classicism in his bones—building these sequences with a pulse and an eye, every image somehow both snappy and propulsive and long, loving looks at physicality and movement. They’re so exceptionally involving and delightfully transporting, I almost felt swept up into the dancing myself despite sitting still. As the dancers join together in musical pleasure or collide in eventual despair even the drama—right down to its striking, tearful, symbolic conclusion—gathers the same sense of perfectly timed motion and expression.

Spielberg builds up the dynamics and conflicts and desires as if it was the first time anyone had played it—and somehow makes old new again. By highlighting these characters with even greater specificity in their time and place, and setting them against a backdrop of social upheaval, immigration, and construction equipment, he’s made a movie about America as a work in progress, with a definition up for grabs. A key figure is a reimagined shopkeeper role made into an even stronger conscience of the piece through the presence of Rita Moreno, star of the first film. Here she’s a wise elderly woman, a Puerto Rican who married a white man and  together ran a corner store for decades. She loves her entire neighborhood, and feels deep pain at their divisions. She wishes she could help bridge that divide. And Spielberg’s bridging a divide, too, having made an old school Hollywood musical epic, elegantly shot on film, brimming with talent and passion in emotion and skill in every second. I found myself brought to the edge of ecstatic tears by the sheer aesthetic pleasure—overwhelmed by the attention and care to the original musical brilliance, and to the undeniable vision of one of our last great moviemakers proving, even for just a few hours, that there’s still a place for this.

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