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Posts Tagged ‘Ariana DeBose’

Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that someone turns up at the front desk of Universal Pictures with the idea for a gripping new thriller: the tale of a small coastal town gripped by fear and institutional inertia, while one of the world’s deadliest killers lurks in the waters just offshore. The name of this new movie? Well, Jaws, obviously. It’s not a remake, before you say anything, it’s an entirely new thing, a brand new adaptation of the original novel by Peter Benchley. How far do you think this project would get?

Not far, you might think, but then again I’ve got quite used to seeing once-unthinkable remakes get to the screen, seldom making much of an impression: The Magnificent Seven, Ben-Hur, The Wicker Man, and so on. Nevertheless, I was genuinely baffled at the news (quite a while ago now) that Steven Spielberg was in the process of doing a new version of West Side Story. For the benefit of new visitors (hello, thanks for dropping by; there’s a link to the A to Z list of reviews at the top, and no, I’m not going to ask you to support me on Patreon or anything), the original Robert Wise version of West Side Story is amongst my absolute favourites – it seems to me to be one of those films it would be impossible to change without diminishing it, somehow, so the prospects of a whole new version… well, this is a big movie made by the world’s most famous director, so it’s bound to make a profit [It turns out maybe not – A], but apart from that, what’s the point of it? What’s it for?

A possible solution eventually emerges. The film is set on the west side of Manhattan in the late 1950s, at a point when many of the slum neighbourhoods were being cleared and redeveloped as more upmarket districts. The area looks like a bomb site, but this doesn’t keep it from being the turf of the local street gang, the Jets, and their leader Riff (Mike Faist). The main target of the Jets’ aggression is the incoming Puerto Rican immigrant community. Tensions between the two sides, and Riff and the other side’s leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) in particular, are growing.

Riff sets out to resolve the matter in the time-honoured manner (by having a big fight), calling on his friend Tony (Ansel Elgort) for help. Recently out of prison and trying to turn over a new leaf, Tony is reluctant – but things change when he meets Bernardo’s little sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and the pair are instantly smitten, despite the racial and cultural chasm between them. Then again, if love can bloom in such circumstances, perhaps there is hope for peace in the community…

It is quite difficult to write about the new West Side Story objectively: the 1961 version doesn’t so much cast a long shadow as cause a total solar eclipse. Even the new film itself tacitly acknowledges this, as the original story has been amended to provide a role for Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the first film) – Moreno gets very little screen time opposite Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita this time, which must have been a relief. Not surprisingly, Spielberg seems to have realised there is not much of a percentage in attempting to copy the original, and it often feels like the new film is deliberately trying to be as different as possible, regardless of how well this serves either the story or the music.

Certainly Spielberg takes every opportunity to make use of modern film-making technology and capabilities: sequences which were originally mounted on slightly stylised sound-stages now occur in the street, in broad daylight, with a full cast of extras in the background. The film feels more grounded and less theatrical as a result. As you may perhaps have noticed, the details of the story have also been amended – the general through-line remains the same, and the songs are largely identical, but a lot of the dialogue has been changed, some characters expanded and deepened, others less prominent. Even more radically, the order of the songs has been changed (sometimes significantly), along with who performs them – although my understanding is that this actually means the new film is closer to the stage show in some ways.

One of the key differences between the 1961 film and the new one is, obviously, that for Spielberg and his collaborators this is a period piece, a story about a specific time and place in the past. The film works hard to establish the historical and social realities involved – again, making it more grounded and naturalistic. One key but subtle difference is that while they may be credited as the Sharks, the Puerto Rican characters aren’t referred to as such on screen – they don’t really form a street gang like the Jets, being depicted as defending their community rather than acting like delinquents. The Jets, it is suggested, are the real no-hopers, the heirs of prior generations too lazy or short-sighted to move out of the west side before it became a slum.

It’s an interesting new approach and I would have thought the film was unlikely to encounter much trouble for its depiction of the various ethnic and minority groups involved – but apparently the fact that this is a production about but not written by Puerto Ricans means it will always be problematic. Even so, you can’t fault everyone’s intentions – the Puerto Rican characters speak so much Spanish to one another that the lack of subtitles is keenly felt, but apparently this was a deliberate choice, so as not to give English some kind of privileged status.

One way or another this version of West Side Story feels like a very different beast from the Robert Wise film – a period piece, but also very modern in its earnestness and occasional lack of subtlety. The film is so determined to be grounded and naturalistic that it feels conflicted about its identity as a musical: the breath-taking, transcendentally cinematic moment from the 1961 film when the strutting street-gang suddenly start ballet-dancing doesn’t have anything like the same effect here; the same is true for most of the choreography. This version is much more about the songs than the dancing.

But, you know, it’s still the same songs and music, and no matter what the context there is a certain minimum level of quality they are not going to dip below. I’ll be honest and say that hearing them in this new setting was a bit disconcerting, so closely do I associate them with the Robert Wise film, while some of them don’t really seem to fit the style Spielberg is going for – ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ is a cynical vaudeville comedy number, which feels a bit at odds with the film’s determined naturalism. But many of them sound as good as ever, even if the staging sometimes feels a little lacking.

As I say, comparisons with the 1961 film are inevitable, and it would be wrong to criticise Spielberg just for doing something different; he hardly had a choice. But I do think the conflict between the naturalism of the staging and the theatricality of the original show creates a tension which is jarring and awkward rather than energising, while the lavish virtuosity of the film sometimes just isn’t as effective as the brilliant clarity Wise managed to achieve. This isn’t a bad film by any means, but I think in years to come, when people casually refer to West Side Story, this isn’t the movie they’re going to be talking about.

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