WEST SIDE STORY, Directed 2021

  • Perhaps like me, when you heard Spielberg was re-making West Side Story, you asked yourself… why bother? Movies achieve classic status precisely because they nailed it. I wondered if Steven wanted to take on the challenge because Wizard of Oz was a musical. Being of his generation, I remember West Side Story exploding onscreen in 1961 as a novel departure from that era’s elaborate stage productions converted to film. West Side Story’s transitions from plot action to song and dance numbers in the slums of NYC came off more natural than other musicals did, especially when the ‘juvenile delinquents’ were performing. I could understand why it might be the only musical that fit into Steven’s boyish repertoire.
  • Right off the bat, the viewer is flown in for an aerial view of the dismal destruction of the Jet’s neighborhood. These homes are not fabled safe havens. They look more like the bombed out villages we saw in Saving Private Ryan. Small-scalewar is a way of life for the displaced inhabitants.
  • Color is muted to subtle shades of hopelessness.
  • The first pop of red and yellow comes with the sign for ‘Doc’s Druggist’ where we are introduced to Tony’s safe haven.
  •  Hilariously, he enters his basement quarters by the same means as a storm hatch to a Kansas tornado shelter!
  • Maria’s bedroom is reminiscent of Dorothy’s, particularly the metal bed with its smattering of old fashioned worn covers. She sprawls across it much like Dorothy does.
  • The morning after meeting Tony, Maria opens the bedroom door and her family’s apartment is cloaked in a riotous mass of color with hanging fabric of every hue like the brilliant setting in OZ. She is entering a new phase of her life, transformed by falling in love.
  • Hues of red and yellow abound in the festive Puerto Rican ghetto, costumes as well. The inhabitants are as joyful in their unfettered exuberance as the munchkins ever were.
  • When Tony and Maria marry themselves before the stained glass window, there is a brief flash of bright backlighting. If you are familiar with Spielberg imagery, you know the significance—this streaming bright light emphatically defines the following scene at the bar when the handgun takes center stage. Danger is imminent. We have been shown both the victim and the means of his demise.
  • Note the promenade of cop cars before the rumble, echoes of Sugarland Express.
  • Speaking of promenades, Steven loves a little crowd support. The solidarity of a group having each other’s back is one of his favorite devices. What better venue than West Side Story to feature strength in numbers. My personal favorite procession is when we see the rival gangs crossing the railroad yard…I swear at one point they sound like the witch’s soldiers chanting Oh ee yah, ee oh ah.
  • As their confederates congregate at the salt shed to rumble, Tony and Chino have to slide under the closing metal door like the tin man, scarecrow and lion make it through the witch’s castle gate at the last moment. It’s been a long time since I watched Indiana Jones or a Jurassic Park but pretty sure that trick might be in those as well.
  • As long as we’re thinking about the witch’s castle scene in WOO, when Anybodys (the wannabe Jet), peeks over that hill of salt did it remind you of lion tin man and scarecrow peering over the surrounding cliffs? A similar scene appears in Close Encounters.
  • I could expound on the many creative takes in Spielberg’s interpretation of the original West Side Story (like having Tony and Maria initiate their romance behind the school bleachers, aww, nostalgic) but that kind of critique is not the focus of this website. Still I think it’s pertinent to point out the inherent complications of shooting certain iconic scenes, moments that were the ‘memes’ of yesteryear. I wonder how long he pondered how to cope with “I Feel Pretty”. He ends up garbing Maria in a green scarf at the department store. Green is an unusual color for Steven to emphasize so I right away perk up my antennae. It soon becomes clear with Maria posturing on podiums that she is clowning for her comrades like the Cowardly Lion does in his green cape while waiting for an audience with the wizard. ‘I am king of the forrrrest’ becomes ‘I Feel Pretty.’ Both scenesoffer comic relief before high drama comes back into play.
  • The minute Anita, swathed in black, is dragged to the morgue to identify Bernardo I visualized the slap that would be forthcoming. Who will ever forget the dead boy’s black veiled mother in Jaws and herslap across the sheriff’s face? Sure enough that resounding slap of death propels Maria into grim reality. Not exactly WOO, but all Spielberg!

Just one last minor detail I’d like to mention. West Side Story, 2022’s version, is the first movie I’ve seen in a theater since the pandemic began. It took some strong-armed coercion to talk my Valentine into this holiday date but even the curmudgeon admitted it was the shortest two and a half hours he ever had to sit through. High praise indeed.


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