Wests Sides Stories

We watched the Wise/Robbins WEST SIDE STORY and the Spielberg together in one day, to see which is better — neither of us, disgracefully, had actually watched the original properly.

Verdict up front: the original is the better film, but the remake doesn’t disgrace it, and you can argue that it has a good reason to exist. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Rita Moreno to act surrounded by white folks in shoe polish the first time. And Rachel Zegler is so adorable in the new one, it makes you think, There was a 1961 version of her out there, somewhere, who should have played that role but never had a shot at it.

On the other (west) hand… the play and the first film had an impeccably simple idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to NOW. Spielberg’s film has a weird idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to 1957. So he has to recreate, physically or digitally, all that stuff that was just THERE for Wise & co. And instead of making the story newly relevant to a contemporary audience, he’s SORT OF doing that, and sort of doing nostalgia? This slight confusion probably has more to do with the film’s failure to find a large theatrical audience than any issue of quality — it’s an enjoyable watch, probably more so if you haven’t been exposed to the original.

We definitely set Spielberg a difficult job, because the opening ten minutes + of the ’61 WSS are absolutely stunning. Impossible to top. Quite Spielbergian, in a way: high impact visual storytelling. A whole series of dramatic reveals done with the camera.

The bird’s-eye views of New York must have been staggeringly new at the time, but they’re still stunning, thanks to the sound/picture combo — whistling echoes from the shaded concrete canyons, impossibly clear and impossibly isolated from other city noise, but creating a thrilling sense of scale and mystery.

The film’s ONE zoom shot crashes in from a high angle and we IMMEDIATELY cut to a tight profile on Russ Tamblyn (the film’s real star — well, Mercutio is the most fun, or should be) and a series of jagged cuts that yank us back and make room for his finger-clicking cohort. The spatial jumps are so short it’s impressive that they work at all, without feeling ugly. It’s important to realise that Wise was an editor (KANE) and this is an editor’s film. Its best effects are all dependent on cutting.

But also framing, movement, and colour. Jerome Robbins may not fully deserve his co-director credit, except that the choreography is so crucial a part of the film that, yeah, he kind of does.

The opening is so good — a series of totally pre-planned in-frame DISCOVERIES, each one dazzling and exciting — that the rest of the film has a hard time living up to it. It’s very good, but only intermittently as EXTRAORDINARY as its start.

Spielberg starts with an aerial view also — if Wise’s film is a cutting film, Spielberg’s is all about crane shots. We’re closer to the ground — the echoing whistle is SUBTERRANEAN — and we’re looking at the ruined skeletons of fire escapes, a nice idea. Slum clearance — the Lincoln Center will rise here. Opening and closing the film in this locale (how much, if any, of this scenery is real?) is a neat idea — especially the ending. It feels post-apocalyptic by night, and it’s a shame Tony Kushner’s script has less talk of war.

I guess Spielberg HAD to change everything here — simply reproducing all the 1961 film’s choices would hardly have been respectable. But it inevitably means everything is either not quite as good or not nearly as good. Still good, I’d say. Just not at the sublime level of Version 0.1.

Even Wise can’t follow himself, so that as the films progress, Spielberg does gain ground. And I don’t fully understand the widespread negative reaction to Ansel Elgort. He’s not as pretty as Richard Beymer, it’s true, and maybe that’s mainly what we want from the part. But I found him in every other respect just as good. If the negative reaction was due to his alleged sexual misconduct, that’s entirely understandable, I too would rather Tony not be played by an alleged sex offender, but that’s not what people were saying was their reason.

The new movie is guilty of a heck of a lot of OPENING OUT, which should probably be a criminal offence. Hitchcock’s “do the play” approach may not be universally correct, but there are so many unintended consequences set off when you faithfully do a scene that was written to take place somewhere else. When “Gee, Officer Krupke” is relocated to a police station, Kushner has to contrive a situation where the kids can be alone to perform it, then has to contrive a situation where they all get released, and both solutions feel… contrived.

I’m prepared to admit that giving “Cool” to Elgort’s Tony actually makes the song more useful to the narrative — though it’s the original, with its fast low angle trackback, that made Fiona gasp.

But moving “I’m so Pretty” to late in the movie, after the deaths of two major characters, is a blunder. The song just washed over us, signifying nothing — our minds were literally elsewhere, on the drama now surging towards a climax while Maria is blissfully unaware. On paper that could be poignant. But the song wasn’t written with that in mind, and I think Bernstein & Sondheim were artful enough that they’d have written a different song for a different context.

Fiona points out that Spielberg DOES steal from Wise, just not from WSS. This reflection is pulled from THE HAUNTING, another Spielberg favourite he’s previously remade (very badly indeed). In the Shirley Jackson adaptation, Fiona says, the shot has a very specific meaning — Eleanor is already being absorbed into Hill House. In the Spielberg, it’s just an attractive shot.

Time and again, the Spielberg movie weakens the show’s effects by overcomplicating things. Removing “America” from its rooftop is acceptable, I guess, though keeping it there and using the modern screen’s ability to show a digital cityscape ought to have been irresistible. But here come the extras — here’s a random woman driving past — there’s such an accumulation of unnecessary STUFF.

And you are?

Spielberg doesn’t steal from Wise much but he does steal from himself, particularly the dancehall rumpus from 1941. And here are the heavily backlit cloths for people to appear behind as pastel wraiths — this one goes back to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA I think but Spielberg has been mimicking it endlessly.

There are moments in the Wise where he approaches the splendour of his opening. In “Quintet” — often, in the movie, I found myself wishing for the camera to push in, only for it to remain obstinately static. Here, it pushes in, and the sequence is AMAZING. The cross-cutting becomes absolutely magical — it gives the dramatic connectedness of disparate scenes a significance that transcends narrative and really becomes magic, in the sense of numinous or supernatural. The Spielberg sequence is… good. Decent. It’s been… opened out. He never actually wrecks a song, and if you compare his work with overedited garbage like CHICAGO you can genuinely admire his skill and restraint.

(Actually, maybe “Quintet” should really be done splitscreen, it’d be the only way to get everyone who’s singing in their own scenes on screen at once along with their voices…)

The ending. This is Wise’s other best moment. I think you could copy the effect of the shock tragedy — he actually makes it a shock, even when it’s been heavily telegraphed and we know our Shakespeare — without copying any of his shots or his exact cutting pattern. Spielberg chooses to throw out the underlying IDEAS and his version strikes me as simply ineffective.

Natalie Wood was always your go-to girl if you wanted hysterics, photogenic yet credible, and in the final scene she does walk all over Rachel Zegler. Surely, Zegler has the right to be there, not only by dint of race but by voice. Maybe she needed a merciless number of takes, Robbins-style, to break her down, or maybe she needed Ernest Lehman’s screenplay adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ book, not Tony Kushner’s.

“They even flubbed the ending,” mourned Fiona. The sensation of being in the presence of greatness was very much with me when the Sharks stepped in to help lift the fallen Jet. You can mess with other stuff in that sequence — Lehman, Wise & Robbins evidently wanted to keep it exactly like the play, and it worked perfectly, but you could get away with tinkering. But not with that moment. That’s what the piece is ABOUT. And to add insult, Spielberg chooses to fade out on the cops coming to arrest Chino, who has more backstory here but is still a minor character. It’s like the Hays-mandated ending of THE LETTER. Justice must be served. Appalling.

I haven’t talked about Rita Moreno yet, and I must. She more than earned her Oscar first time out. And she’s excellent here, and she again has a right to be here. Her insertion as a new character does do some violence to the story, though. I liked the original’s Doc (Ned Glass), who I take to be Jewish, an emigre, a survivor of an actual war who can comment on the gang war with the advantage of experience. (IS experience an advantage, though? Experience HURTS.) Doc does get a cameo here, photoshopped in.

Still, I can see why they did it, and even giving Rita a song, purloined from the lovers, kind of works. It’s still a song for them even if she sings it (beautifully). It’s an issue, though. Friar Laurence in R&J is a neutral figure, ideally placed to help the star-cross’d lovers. It kind of doesn’t make sense for her to be Puerto Rican and for the Jets to like her. The Jets are racist — even more so in the remake. The script attempts to cover this, and it’s not wholly successful. It’s passable. But still a weak area. Maybe it’s worth it, to include Rita, and not just as a meaningless cameo.

The other character I’d like to talk about is Anybodys, the tomboy, coded queer, in the original, who is maybe kinda proto-trans in the remake. And apparently trans is a superpower because they can punch out a swarm of policemen. Unless I missed it, nobody calls them by name, and they’ve lost most of their dialogue, which is a shame. I know a character can make an impression without words, but I also know that Susan Oakes got to make more of an impression than Iris Menas in the new version. And Menas’ character being, essentially, unnamed is a shame. If you think about the nickname, implying promiscuity, you have to assume that Anybodys wanted so badly to be a Jet she went with more than one of them, and now they shame her for it. Heartbreaking. The Jets suck.

I guess in the end I’m not nice enough to agree that casting the right ethnicity, unquestionably a good thing to do per se, is enough of a reason to remake WEST SIDE STORY if you can’t make it otherwise better than the original. I’m not really in favour of remaking classics. Make a new film with Puerto Rican characters. Comparisons are odious, so don’t ask for them.

18 Responses to “Wests Sides Stories”

  1. It all begins with Montgomery Clift.
    Yes, Montgomery Clift.
    Monty was having a fling with Jerry Robbins and one summer afternoon when they were out relaxing on Fire Island Jerry told Monty that he was stuck for an idea for a new dance piece he was struggling to conceive. Monty suggested Romeo and Juliet with the “Capulets” and “Montagues” depicted as New York street gangs.
    Soon that dance piece metastasized into a full-scale musical with a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents. Four gay men. What these four gay men created was a classic. West Side Story debuted on Broadway in 1957 and had a healthy run. In 1961 it was turned into a lavish Hollywood musical directed by Jerry with an assist for the non-singing and dancing aspects by Robert Wise. It was an enormous popular success winning ten Academy Awards and for years this version was regarded as definitive. Consequently many wondered why Stephen Spielberg wanted to remake it.
    Could he “top” the 61 version? “Equal” it? Maybe he was after something else entirely for the 2021 version is as tuneful and dramatic as the 1961. It’s main problem isn’t on-screen but off it ie. the COVID epidemic — which decimated the prospects for theatrically released films in 2021. The new West Side Story barely raised a box office pulse on its December debut. But now it’s on cable and will undoubtedly win an audience that way — as have so many other worthrelease that have become COVID “roadkill.” Regardless of this exhibition boondoggle the question remains: what the 2021 West Side Story have to offer that the 1961 didn’t? Perhaps the cumulatve power of hindsight might provide us with some answers.
    The four creators of West Side Story were gay. But they were also Jewish. And to a large degree the impetus for the show sprang from the Jewish moral imperative of reaching out to help the ” less fortunate”.In the case of West Side Story that meant the Puerto Ricans who had emigrated to New York City in search of a better life only to run into a tsunami of physically hostile prejudice. In short this was a musical about “Man’s Inhumanity to Man”
    It should be noted the “Man’s Inhumanity To Man” was the title of a sketch in the Shoestring Revue produced and directed by Ben Begley — another boyfriend of Monty’s. In the number a composer declares he’s going to write without compromise on the subject only to end up with bevvy of chorines singing “Man’s Inhumanity To Man is wrong — and so we welcome you to our show!” Needless to say West Side Story isn’t like that. It’s a deadly serious show, ending as its Shakepeare model does in death. The only difference is that its Romeo (“Tony”) dies while its Juliet (“Maria”) survives. Nevertheless it’s just as bleak. Yet just like it’s Shakeperian model West Side Story has inspired audiences rathern than depressed them
    Steven Spielberg has said the original Broadway cast recording of West Side Story was played by his parets all the time when he was growig up. Consequently it was this recording (rather than the first movie) that set him on the long road that eventually resulted in his film. Unlike its predecessors Spielberg’s West Side Story deals directly with its Puero Rican characters. Spanish is spoken frequently and more importantly the militant Puerto Rican anthem “La Borinquena” is sung prior to the usual opening number “Here Come the Jets”
    Justin Peck’s choregrphy doesn’t try to duplicate Jerry Robbins. In fact it makes a considerable alteration by changing “Cool” from an ensemble piece with a furiously singing and dancing Jts gang into a kind of macho pas de deux between the characters of “Riff” and “Tony.” No there’s nothing homoerotic here. More interesting Peck eliminates the one piece of frankly homoerotic dance at the begininng where coming down the street The Jets turn completely around to look at what’s behind them before turning back again. This is nothing more and nothing less than a classic gay cruising move, perfectly decribd by Edie Sedgwick pal Ed Hennessey in Edie:An American Biogrphy (an oral history of the Andy Warhol “superstar” by Jean Stein and George Plimpton ,Alfred A. Knopf 1982)
    “Chuck and I did our famous pirouette move there on the street. He had taught it to me. As you’re walking along and you see very attractive pas s you, you do a complete circle as you continue walking and you take another look.”
    Cause “Whe you’re aJet you’re aJet all the way, from your first pirouette to your last embroche..”

  2. Jacques loved “West Side Story” He even cast grover Dale who was in the Broadway show but not either film. Grover is still with us, BTW

  3. Grant Skene Says:

    I do like many musicals, but I just cannot sit through West Side Story (1961). That opening scene with the Jets prancing about, snapping their fingers just makes me cringe. I cannot help thinking if these guys really walked down the streets of New York then or now, they’d have their asses kicked in seconds flat. I don’t see how any of the balletic poses and jumps in any way connote street toughness. Leo Gorcey would be crumpling his hat if the Bowery Boys started doing any of that. Perhaps if it were on a set rather than actual locations, I could suspend my disbelief, but I don’t think so. I just think the choreography is all wrong. I am trying to think of a dance scene that does connote violence and aggression and don’t know of one.

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    Though I loved the original movie as a kid, I can’t enjoy it since learning it’s Marni Nixon in Natalie Wood Face.

  5. Grant Skene Says:

    Great routine from My Sister Eileen. Thanks David. But that seems to fit more in the line of dance competition between 2 or 3 men. The bet you can’t do this, or try and top that kind of dancing which many musicals have. I still don’t see it as particularly aggressive or violent. Nonetheless, I would take that routine any day over West Side Story.

    I wonder if Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen could have choreographed that scene better?

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Thank you David C. for this special comparison and kudos to David E. for his very informative background material post. Regretfully, I also, gave the 1961 version a miss until the remake and articles on it in wsws,org.,stimulated me =to seek out the original. Here, I wholeheartedly agree with the merits of the original expertly described by our two Davids. I was also touched by the ending of the 1961 version that spoke not only to its time but has greater relevance now.

  7. It makes sense that Spielberg grew up with the record, probably imagining his own images. It even makes sense that when he finally saw the movie, he might have preferred his own images. He was wrong though.

    I’m not too bothered whether the Jets dance in a way that seems genuinely tough. I appreciate it as artifice. The film shuffles back and forth between location and studio… maybe the most convincingly violent bit is “Cool” played in the fake parking garage. The low ceiling makes everything menacing.

  8. Neither Kelly nor Done could improve on Fosse (that’s HIS number — the hats si’l vous plait) as for violence with dance and music that would mean Grand Opera — which “Westside Story” is right on the edge of becming. It doesn’t truly tip over into it as Lenny’s true operatic passions are best expressed in “Trouble in Tahhiti” and “Candide”

  9. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I like the Spielberg more. The original has the advantage of having Robbins’ original choreography but Spielberg’s is better and the cast is superior, especially the Spanish speaking parts and Rita Moreno is brilliant. America in the remake is especially good.

  10. bensondonald Says:

    Haven’t seen the new movie, but experienced the original as well as several stage productions. Random trivial notes:

    In the stage version, “America” is a showstopper for three girls. The lyric is basically two of the girls mocking the third one’s nostalgia for Puerto Rico. In the movie, it’s a huge production number. More interestingly, the lyrics are new and much edgier, ripping into the Sharks’ experience of American life. It’s rare that Hollywood goes harder rather than softer.

    The movie keeps most of the scenes and songs in original order, except for switching “Cool” and “Officer Krupke”. Onstage “Officer Krupke” comes in the second act after the rumble, a pause for Broadway flash as the world is collapsing around the kids. Evidently the feeling was that theater audiences would need a bit of relief, while the tension and emotion could be sustained with movie audiences.

    The official script and score includes a fantasy ballet that grows out of “Somewhere”, as Maria and Tony imagine a pastoral paradise. It’s not in the movie, and I’ve only seen one production attempt it onstage: A colorful flower-power backdrop came down, the gang members wandered on in white short-sleeve shirts looking dazed, and a straight-faced ballerina who had no other part in the show did classical moves while leading the Jets and Sharks to pair off and hold hands. Maybe Robbins and his Broadway cast could make it work, but here it was the capper on a very strange evening (the orchestra and some of the sets were professional level, but the show was full of ill-advised choices and outright mistakes. Riff died in front of the curtain line and had to roll back as the house lights came up).

  11. Mike Clelland Says:

    As seen on Facebook:

    Oh, I gotta get in on this!

    First, I need to say that the first 9 minutes of the 1961 WSS is, for me, one of the most wonderful things ever put on film! David said as much in his review, and he’s right!

    The first one had two wonderful character actors, Simon Oakland and Ned Glass, and both were always playing New Yorkers. These two were like comfort food for the soul, more so in the decades after their roles in WSS. Not much to say here, but their presence in the film just plain felt good!

    My problem with the re-make was all the CGI lens flare, especially in the high school dance. Jeesh, it was annoying.

    I lived in Manhattan for over a decade, and the CGI backgrounds really bugged me, it felt like they were in that oppressive green screen bubble (like the new Star Wars TV shows). It looked like they might have filmed a few things on real locations, but with some very expensive visual tricker to make the stuff in the deep background match some bygone era.

    That stuff was too slick and too shiny–it made my brain hurt. It distracted me from being able to immerse myself in the story. But a lot of modern filmmaking does that to my brain, and maybe I’m alone on this one.

    Thank you for your reviews!

    Mike C!

  12. La Faustin Says:

    In Richard Price’s novel THE WANDERERS, there’s a wonderful scene of actual early-1960s teen gang members earnestly discussing the first WSS film and which character was “them,” perceiving no gap between their own pimply selves and movie stars. When the novel was made into a film, I would have loved to have seen the gang in the balcony at Loew’s Gigantor with WSS glowing away.

  13. George White Says:

    Thinking of Fixenties era Latina American actresses of that age who could have played Maria, Susan Kohner (IMitation of Life) perhaps, but again she probably would have to have been Nixon’d.

  14. I am completely obsessed with Mike Faist as Riff. Soon as he’s out of the picture I lose interest.

  15. There’s a similar decline in charisma in the first movie when Tamblyn bites the big one. Faist interested me mainly for his vague facial resemblance to Spielberg.

    Kohner (half-Mexican) could have lip sunk her way through it, but my point was there would have been Puerto Rican actors around at the time who we simply never got to hear about.

    It’s ridiculous that I still haven’t watched The Wanderers! And I like Philip Kaufman a lot.

    I’m prepared to believe the lens flare here is real. It probably isn’t, but it could be. I *know* it isn’t in JJ Abrams films.

  16. Wil E. Coyote Says:

    (Tried posting this yesterday, but it didn’t show up. Sorry if you get it several times).

    I haven’t seen the stage play, but I think I read somewhere (Wikipedia?) that the placement of “I feel pretty” in Spielberg’s version actually respect the order of the original play; the difference is that in the stage version it was the opening number of Act II, so it didn’t take place *inmediately* after the murder (there’s an intermission). I agree that in the movie it really rubs you the wrong way.

    As for the finale, the theory I have read is that it has more to do with current racial politics than anything else. The original’s “racial harmony” message isn’t much to the liking of today’s progressive activists, who tend to be more aggressive/jaded/cynical (take your pick) about the subject, so Spielberg felt he had to de-emphasize it. The Jets and Sharks still lift Tony together, but you can barely see it.

    My take: I love both versions and find it hard to choose between either of them, but one thing that does bug me about Spielberg’s is that his version is less “theatrical” and more “naturalistic”, but in the wrong way. What I mean is: every effect in the Spielberg version has to be justified. If the lights suddenly turn on when Tony first sings “Mariaaaa”, it has to be because a guy turned them on, it cannot be just movie magic. There’s nothing like the moment in the original when Tony and Maria first see each other and everyone else fades (an admittedly theatrical device, but one that just *works*, fantastically).

    Similarly, there’s the insistence in giving some dramatic action to every number, instead of just treating them as songs. That’s usually a good idea, but here it leads to some awkwardness. For example, also in “Maria”, see 2:13 here:

    Tony cannot just be singing “Maria”, there has a woman opening her window and staring at him, and Tony realising that it’s the wrong Maria and looking away sheepishly… just as he is still singing a loud part of the song. That mismatch between action and music was so jarring that it took me out of the scene right there.

    I realise I’m writing a lot on the flaws of the Spielberg version, so also wanted to say: there is a montage of the “morning after” (right after “Maria”, I believe), with the stores opening, people going to work… that is just glorious. You can almost feel the music, despite there not being any. Spielberg at his best. And the moment when Tony is shot… despite knowing what was going to happen, it was still chilling.

    And Rachel Zegler is *awesome*, too. Look for her Youtube channel and see the performances she’s been uploading there, from back when she was just a high school theater kid.

  17. Yes, I was informed on Facebook about the original placement of I Feel Pretty. The intermission would indeed have made that work. The only song in the 61 film that feels at all awkwardly placed is “Cool.”

    It’s almost a rule that if a scene can be transplanted from one place to another, you might as well cut it. Musicals have their own special rules, of course, since songs typically don’t *advance* the action but memorialize a specific moment in the story. It’s mysterious to me that musicals work at all, but I’m glad they do.

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