Review: West Side Story (2021)

Posted: April 3, 2022 in Artistry, Cinema, Classical Music, Culture, Music
Tags: , , ,

Was surprised to learn a while back that West Side Story (1961) was being remade by none other than Steven Spielberg. Yeah, that Steven Spielberg. Among the spurious reasons (I gather) for the frankly unnecessary remake was a desire to recast with actors of the proper ethnic origin. Ugh. Sure, the original actors who portrayed Bernardo and Maria were Americans of Greek and Russo/Ukrainian descent, respectively. So what? Spielberg’s casting didn’t get much closer (Canadian and American/Colombian, respectively), though the newly cast actors certainly look like they could be Puerto Rican. Any further updating of this particular adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (one of many) for today’s woke sensibilities was also foiled considering the plot (starry-eyed, ill-fated, would-be lovers divided by rivalrous families/gangs) remained essentially unchanged and the original 1950s NYC setting was kept. In addition, the original musical score (altered — more on that below) and choreography (updated? I can’t tell) were used. It wasn’t a shot-for-shot remake, and I presume some of the dialogue was changed, but I didn’t make direct comparisons. Lastly, considering the 1961 original won numerous awards, who exactly was crying out for a remake? Unsurprisingly, the remake was also nominated for awards.

Aside: In arts and entertainment media, remakes are restricted to cinema. No one rewrites a book. Restaged theater and musicals are merely new productions. Rerecording a pop song is understood as a “cover” of the original, not a remake. The rather large discography of classical music includes many, many different versions of the same works, e.g., Beethoven symphonies. (Some suggest, “Does anyone really need yet another version of Beethoven Symphony No. 5?” That question loses legitimacy when asked about live performance.) One might argue that those, too, are remakes, except that there is rarely such a thing as a definitive original. Moreover, consider that music is a dynamic art typically practiced live, in real time. A musical recording fixes that experience, whether live in concert or in the recording studio, on a playback medium intended for repeat play. Comparison of different performances can be quite interesting and enjoyable. Further, a recording of a sporting event might be made for more convenient rebroadcast shortly afterwards and/or for archival purposes, but repeat experience (i.e., rewatching the 1985 Super Bowl vs. listening repeatedly to a favorite music album) is anathema when the outcome has already been seen. Similarly, repeat viewing of TV shows and movies is best at wide intervals, after memory of original viewing fades. Cinema, in contrast with music, has always been a fixed form. Cinema is also not understood as a recording of a live experience. Its genesis as playback differs from stage theater or musical theater. (Some critics and superfans — especially the YouTube variety — don’t wait but instead immediately go back in search of Easter eggs and continuity errors.) Finally, only a modest number of TVs shows have been remade or rebooted, whereas remaking and rebooting movies is comparatively commonplace, which has been characterized as “Hollywood out of ideas.” Take note that West Side Story was first a stage musical and only later committed to film.

My personal relationship with West Side Story has always been with the music — an extraordinarily brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein very much of its cultural moment. I’ve performed excerpts numerous times with various ensembles, yet it wasn’t until about a decade ago I saw the original film and was flabbergasted how much faster the tempi were. Ensembles today are far tamer in performance. The 2021 film score is admirably performed by the New York Philharmonic, which is an obvious, necessary, and felicitous choice of ensemble. The soundtrack is undoubtedly my favorite part of the 2021 remake, but like other aspects, it had to be rerecorded. Tinkering with the original was apparent, presumably to fit the various cues (musical numbers) together into a more fluid whole rather than being presented as start-and-stop, standalone numbers. Music accompanying the credit sequence at the end uses this approach. I also detected in places sound effects (not available in 1961?) and reorchestration. Kinda bugged me, though I daresay nonmusicians would scarcely notice. Female singers fared much, much better than males. The one glaring failure I decline to name. I wonder if actors were cast more for their dancing and looks than singing ability.

A couple pet peeves about the dialogue. Numerous times, arguing characters spoke on top of each other — not interrupting but simultaneously. While that occurs frequently in real life, the resulting loss of intelligibility of stacked dialogue can be avoided easily. Ironically, when dialogue can’t be understood (reasons vary), I often find that it doesn’t matter, I don’t care, or both. Not a good result considering how carefully crafted most dialogue is, the assumed intent being that it does matter what the characters say. Additionally, dialogue lapsed into Spanish repeatedly but English subtitles were not provided. Accordingly, that dialogue also dropped out. Or was it a clumsy signal that those characters’ speech was less important, unworthy of translation? Admittedly, I’m a typical monolingual American despite having considerable foreign language study and exposure and usually catch only bits of dialogue in foreign languages. I might be part of a shrinking demographic, but the U.S. has not adopted Spanish as the primary alternative to English. Indeed, depending on which part of Chicago I’m in (lots of ethnic neighborhoods in this cosmopolitan city), I might see and hear Polish, Korean, Hindi, Russian, Ukrainian, or Spanish. Few others, though present, make any impression on me.

Now here’s where things get ugly. Because the original musical and film are both well established canon, the 2021 remake takes no apparent liberties with the story basics. Thus, viewers are spared questionable Spielbergian moral instruction that is often embedded in his other films, especially those of a serious nature. However, the production values, tone, and editing exhibit quintessential characteristics of a Spielberg production. Most notable among them is the pounding plot pace that blocks understanding of one whiplash development before another replaces it. Quite a feat when characters pause routinely to break into song or dance to amplify their feelings. Another is a positively overstuffed visual style and distracting attention-getting camera tricks. The upper west side of NYC is made to look like a war zone rather than an older urban neighborhood under rapid redevelopment. Partially demolished buildings and debris-strewn streets look incongruously like bombed out German cities from World War II. The best dance sequence was “America,” with the characters flooding enthusiastically into the streets. However, the scene was so chaotic that, had I not known the story already, I might have expected it to erupt into a giant street brawl.

I’ll admit my bias. Having seen all (or nearly all) of Spielberg’s films over the past five decades, I rather expect his style to be heavily visual, less character driven, and that every aspect under his control will be laboriously glamorized until it’s effectively anodyne. Stylistic elements become the primary focus rather than a servant, overwhelming the characters and story. Spielberg’s film-making is showy and self-conscious, but by reveling so clearly in process, viewers are drawn out of the story to admire techniques themselves. Like The Wizard of Oz, the curtain is drawn back to reveal the machinery and suspension of disbelief is dispelled.

In music, showpieces are acknowledged guilty pleasures that get little critical respect despite their popularity among audiences. In cinema, showpieces are understood as Oscar bait and similarly suffer lack of respect, at least outside the awards circuit. Without a full taxonomy of Spielberg films, I nonetheless feel like watching one is inevitably being yanked in one of two directions: serious issues served up as cheap moralizing or overproduced but hollow glamor. West Side Story falls into the latter category.

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