Cinema classics for a queer Christmas

If you had any reservations about the news that Steven Spielberg was remaking “West Side Story,” you’re not alone. After all, with Hollywood’s track record of producing ghastly remakes of classic movies, it’s probably wise to be skeptical when a new one arrives.

Having said that, you can now be assured that your skepticism is unfounded.

From its very first shot, in which Spielberg pays a shameless tribute to the opening moments of “Citizen Kane” while establishing almost everything we need to know about the setting for the story we’ll see, “West Side Story” dispels immediately any concern. on the master director’s ability to deliver the blend of theatrical and cinematic art he deserves. With an unparalleled mastery of the visual language of storytelling, he brings us vividly into the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks – two teenage street gangs, white and Puerto Rican respectively, at war over the territory of a Manhattan slum – and sets the stage for a tale of “Romeo and Juliet” by Shakespeare in which a family feud is traded for racism as the basis of a young love story thwarted by old hatred.

For those unfamiliar with it, the plot centers around the romance of Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) – which is a problem as Tony is the best friend of Jets chief Riff (Mike Faist). , and Maria is the sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks. Despite the concerns of those around them – including Bernardo’s shrewd and willful girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) – the couple’s forbidden love endures even as rival gangs plan to wipe each other out once and for all. , triggering a tragic chain of events that will shock the entire community.

Spielberg’s respectful reworking of the classic musical drama – conceived for Broadway in 1957 and first translated in theaters in an Oscar-winning classic directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise – achieves what skeptics thought was impossible: a new rendering that succeeds in bringing depth, a more contemporary sensitivity to the material while leaving it essentially unchanged. Much of the credit goes to Pulitzer winner Tony Kushner, whose literate and perfect adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ screenplay fills some of the blanks in the story and expands its reach to illuminate the complex economic and social issues that lie ahead. find in his heart.

The characters are fleshed out by more detailed stories which give them a greater dimension and humanity; Tony, for example, is on parole after being in jail for nearly killing a rival gang member in a fight, and we find out that Riff’s father was as much of a thug as he was. Additionally, the minor role of “Anybodys,” a female Jet originally described as a “tomboy” who is ridiculed and shut out by her gang mates for being a girl, here receives an embellished presence, who, aided by a powerful performance by Iris Menas, leaves little doubt that she grapples with gender identity in a time when there were no words for such things.

In a similar expansion, we find the neighborhood set to be demolished ahead of the construction of Lincoln Center and the opulent housing that surrounds it, permanently planting the film in the same time frame as the original work while pushing forward. the impact of urban upheaval and gentrification on the low-income and marginalized communities they continually displace.

With flourishes like these, Kushner’s screenplay brings “West Side Story” into the present without removing it from the world that gave birth to it, highlighting the connections and parallels between the two eras and reminding us of just how much this American classic continues to be relevant. .

Likewise, the hugely talented cast is instrumental in reframing the story for a more evolved age – and not just because all of the Latino roles are played by Latino performers this time around. Each of the young stars gives a performance of heartbreaking authenticity, with DeBose’s Anita, a special star who commands the screen in every scene she’s in (as she should!), And Zegler, a newcomer to the scene. ‘screen, providing a Maria as daring and self-possessed as she is so luminous and delicate. But perhaps the film’s most magnificent performance comes from Rita Moreno, the Anita from the original film, who here plays the rewritten (and re-gendered) role of a neighborhood shopkeeper who serves as Tony’s surrogate parent; She imbues the character with a combination of warmth and hard-earned wisdom, and her presence brings an element of having come full circle, a touch of nostalgia that ties the film to its heritage and lingers with us long after the credits roll. .

The same can be said of the much revered score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (RIP, genius), which is here preserved and performed almost entirely intact. Some songs are rearranged in the story, and some songs are performed by different characters than we are used to, but arranger David Newman and conductor Gustavo Dudamel manage to deliver a catchy and passionate rendering of the music. classic of the show. – enhanced by the exceptional voice of its cast, none of which required the type of dubbing that was standard practice when “West Side Story” first appeared on screen.

As for Spielberg, it’s hard to imagine another director who could pull off this. He draws from his vast sea of ​​cinematic influences to create a larger-than-life, skillfully constructed work of visual art that handles the spectacular and the intimate with equal skill and engages our emotions on all levels. He frequently references the classic films he loves, weaving them into a tapestry that acknowledges his debt to the great filmmakers who came before him while firmly asserting his own mastery of the medium. He even asserts his self-confidence by recalling fond memories of the classic 1961 version, the subtle but unmistakable emulation of its color palette and lighting choices in key scenes with the most obvious echoes of the original choreography of Jerome Robbins in the dance – brilliantly staged. by Spielberg and choreographer Justin Peck in a style that mimics the athletic movement of the original’s dance sequences while jumping to heights all of its own.

Yet for all this deference to the past, Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story” excels and excites because she feels so firmly grounded in the here and now. His intention is to learn from the past, not dwell on it, and he challenges us every moment to see history with a contemporary – and sometimes uncomfortable – perspective. Most provocative, perhaps, is his choice not to use subtitles when the characters speak Spanish; with that simple twist he aims straight at the heart of the turmoil dividing our culture today, thus using a 64-year-old musical written by three gay men as it was always meant to be used – as a powerful condemnation. fanaticism and hatred in a world that has seen enough murder.

Spielberg’s vision honors, even celebrates the beloved original film, but simultaneously reiterates it into something exciting and new. Even the most rigid purist can’t ask for a more faithful adaptation than this.


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