Movie Review West Side Story (7/10)

Photo Credit You Tube 20th Century Fox

West Side Story (7/10)

by Tony Medley

156 minutes

PG-13

The question is, why? Why remake a film that won 10 Academy Awards, including best picture in 1962?

There are several possible answers:

  1. Money: They just aren’t making films today that people want to see. West Side Story was a huge financial hit in 1962 ($44 million gross on a $6 million budget) Why not try this again (this time with a $100 million budget)? But are they going to remake Casablanca, All About Eve, A Few Good Men, etc.? Let’s hope not.
  2. There was only one Puerto Rican in the 1962 film, Rita Moreno (who still had to have her body painted darker). George Chakiris (Bernardo) was Greek and Natalie Wood Anglo;
  3. Directors Robert Wise (Jerome Robbins was fired mid-production but still got an Oscar®) v. Steven Spielberg. Could Spielberg do it better?
  4. But probably the most important and most reasonable explanation is that nobody is writing beautiful music anymore. If Hamilton is an example, melody and good dancing are no longer germane to the Broadway musical. In fact, the only melodic music I can remember to come to Broadway in the last 40 years is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Compare that with the plays that opened between 1954 and 1959, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, West Side Story, The Sound of Music. And all the 21st Century can offer is Hamilton? Just hum one melodic song from that.

Things that are worse, in no particular order:

Jerome Robbins’ wonderful choreography has been dumped or changed by Justin Peck (uncredited), to the film’s detriment.

Wise opened his movie with spellbinding overhead shots of Manhattan looking straight down. It shows big buildings and a bustling city. Spielberg opens his movie with overhead shots showing what looks like bombed out Berlin at the end of WWII, but it’s really part of New York City where the kids all live. Wise’s opening was captivating. Spielberg’s opening is a turn off, but it does set the stage for a grittier film.

Spielberg has greatly changed “Dance at the Gym” and it is much worse. Along with the music, it’s the best part of the 1962 movie. Robbins’ choreography was captivating. Peck’s is pedestrian. Especially romantic was the way Wise had Maria and Tony meet, as everything dims as they see each other across the dance floor and float together as the other dancing and dancers fade and they do a slow dreamy mambo. Spielberg has them meet and then go behind the grandstand standing there alone, robbing it of the mystique and magic that Wise/Robbins created.

One of the most romantic songs in the play is “Somewhere” a duet between Maria and Tony. (“There’s a place for us; a time and place for us; Hold my hand and we’re halfway there; Hold my hand and I’ll take you there; Somehow, someday, somewhere”). Spielberg has Rita Moreno, playing Valentina (a male character named “Doc” in the original), singing it alone. It makes absolutely no sense and borders on heresy. If Spielberg remade Showboat he’d probably have someone like Kathryn Grayson sing “Ol’ Man River.”

I was in the minority in that I thought that Richard Beymer was a good Tony. He looked tougher than Ansel Elgort, but Elgort does do his own singing and dancing, unlike Beymer. He doesn’t have the chemistry with Maria that Beymer had with Wood onscreen (even though Beymer said that off camera she was cold and aloof).

The new film has no interesting character actors like John Astin (uncredited as Glad Hand running the Dance at the Gym) and Simon Oakland as Lt. Shrank in 1962.

Things that are better:

  1. Rachel Zegler’s performance as Maria. Wood’s acting was terrific, but she did not sing, and she was not Hispanic. Zegler is not Puerto Rican, but she is half Colombian. She is almost as beautiful as Wood, is a terrific actress, and has a beautiful voice.
  2. In the 1962 movie, everyone’s singing was dubbed except Moreno’s and even she was dubbed for one song. United Artists refused to give Marni Nixon any royalties for using her voice for Wood and Moreno, so Leonard Bernstein (who wrote the music) generously shared some of his royalties with her. As far as I know, everyone does their own singing in this film.

The music is so good in West Side Story that it would be almost impossible for a director to make a film that was not entertaining. But as to Wise v. Spielberg, I score it Wise 1: Spielberg 0.

Tony Medley is an attorney, columnist, and MPAA-accredited film critic whose reviews and articles may be read in several newspapers and at rottentomatoes.com, CWEB.com, RobinhoodNews.com, Movie Review Query Engine (mrqe.com), and at www.tonymedley.com. His most recent book is “Learn to Play Bridge Like a Boss,” the most complete “all in one” book for beginners and also for advanced players. He is also the author of three books, UCLA Basketball: The Real Story, Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed, the first book ever written on the interview for the interviewee and still in print after more than thirty years, having sold over a half million copies, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bridge, which has sold over 100,000 copies. He is an American Contract Bridge League Silver Life Master and an ACBL accredited director.

 


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