West Side Story redux

Discussion in 'Media Central' started by Forbin, Apr 3, 2022.

  1. Forbin

    Forbin Do you feel fluffy, punk?

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    Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.

    Don’t call it a remake; call it a new film version of the stage play.

    I was impressed with the cast. Tony was a little dull, but Maria shined. I had doubts about anyone filling Natalie Wood's shoes, but young Rachel Zegler has a powerful voice (her own, too!) and a bright talent. The film has the benefit of the Puerto Rican characters being played by Latin actors. White actors in brownface was barely a point of contention for the 1961 film, but doesn’t wear well in today’s eyes. Mike Faist’s Riff has a more world-weary ennui to his performance than the happy-go-lucky and often-manic Russ Tamblin. Storekeeper Doc is missing from this version in order to bless us with Rita Morino’s presence, playing Doc’s widow in his place.

    Based more closely on the stage play than the first film, I noticed some musical numbers arranged in a different places in the narrative, and performed by different characters. I’m assuming that’s their original sequence and the ’61 film moved them around? Regardless, the music and the songs are still glorious, even sixty five years after their first performance, and the story hasn’t lost its relevance (sadly) in the 426-ish years since Shakespeare wrote it.

    Spielberg’s approach to the film is different than Wise’s. While Wise gave us a more stage-looking production with artfully-designed sets, sometimes with fantasy backdrops artistically fading in and isolating characters during numbers, Spielberg gives us a straight, conventionally-filmed movie where the characters break into song and dance right here in real world settings. I was actually kind of disappointed in the lack of creative cinematography, something I usually associate with Spielberg films.

    Preference? Hard to say yet. The original film is a masterpiece in all respects, visually, musically, and performances. Yet in recent viewings with today’s eyes, I find myself cringing a little at Natalie’s brown makeup and cliché accent. And the fact that the two stars’ singing voices were overdubbed by “better” singers has always been a negative. The new film has an appropriate cast who sing their own parts beautifully, but the film itself is much less artful to watch (though still glorious to listen to). Time will tell.
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  2. tafkats

    tafkats scream not working because space make deaf Moderator

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    I finally watched it. Scattered thoughts:

    1) The order of songs. There are three main choices that were handled differently across the stage musical and both movie versions, all having to do with whether the number falls before or after the rumble and Riff and Bernardo's deaths.

    "Gee, Officer Krupke" -- in the stage version, this happens after the Rumble. In both movies, it happens before the rumble, near the end of Act I. (Even though the movies don't technically have an act structure, it's easy enough to peg the Rumble as the end of Act I.) I like the movies' choice better. It's a lighthearted number that feels out of place in Act II, given that the boys all saw what happened.

    "I Feel Pretty" -- in the stage version, this is the Act II opener. Since Maria doesn't know about the Rumble, it's an especially heartbreaking piece of dramatic irony. The 1961 movie moved it before the Rumble; the 2021 movie keeps it in its original place right after the Rumble. I think it has more emotional impact where the stage version and the 2021 movie put it. The juxtaposition of Maria's last moments of hopeful innocence with the audience's awareness of Riff and Bernardo's deaths is powerful, and the 1961 movie's placement diluted that power.

    "Cool" -- while the 1961 movie moves this to after the Rumble, the 2021 movie keeps it before the Rumble, which is where it fell in the original. It's a close call, but I think I like it better where it fell in the 1961 movie.

    2) Doc becoming Valentina. I love this change, for a couple of reasons ... first, because it's a great way to work Rita Moreno into the story, but second, because Valentina adds an emotional resonance that Doc didn't have. In the original, Doc was basically just a plot device ... a nice guy and a stable adult figure, but really he was more of a prop than a true character. Setting up Valentina and Doc as a parallel to Maria and Tony helps emphasize the tragedy by first giving hope (they did get married and live happily ever after until he died, presumably of natural causes) and then taking it away.

    3) "Somewhere." I'm pretty sure this is the only number that was sung by completely different people in every version of the story.

    In the stage version, it's not sung by a character at all, but by on offstage soprano while a ballet unfolds on stage. This approach removes the number from the narrative of the show and feels a lot like Laurey's dream ballet from Oklahoma! ... and while it's a perfectly valid approach, the fact that it's so similar to the approach that Oklahoma! pioneered 10 years earlier makes it feel a little derivative, and you could argue that having the music be more exegetic than diegetic makes it less emotionally resonant. (Or maybe it helps emphasize the feelings of alienation. Who knows?)

    In the 1961 movie, it's a duet between Tony and Maria. On the one hand this is a little obvious, and arguably a less creative choice than the original. On the other hand putting the lyrics in the mouths of the protagonists keeps us connected to the plot, and there is an undeniable emotional power to harmony that is hard for a solo to match (although I think Tony and Maria sing it in octaves, which makes it a little less powerful).

    In the 2021 movie, it's sung by Valentina, which gives it a completely different character -- still yearning, but reflective at the same time, leading to a nice double meaning.

    It's hard to say which of the three approaches I like best. In a way the difference is reflective of the different media -- the dream ballet works better on stage than it would on film, and conversely, the versatility of film makes the Valentina version play better than it probably would on stage.

    4) The characterization of Anybodys. In the stage musical and the 1961 film, Anybodys is a tomboy girl; in the 2021 film the character is a trans man. I guess I have conflicted feelings about this change. On the one hand, representation is good, and certainly Anybodys could have been a trans man. On the other hand, the thought process of "this character is gender nonconforming, therefore this character must be trans" evokes a certain level of gender essentialism that rubs me the wrong way, as if it's saying that a girl who enjoys presenting herself in a stereotypically masculine way cannot actually be a girl.

    5) There is some really gorgeous cinematography. The shot that stands out the most for me is the overhead shot at the beginning of the Rumble in the salt shed when the Jets and Sharks are approaching each other from opposite ends, each lit at a low angle from behind. Creative and starkly beautiful.

    6) The 2021 version feels a little more contextualized. Especially with pulling in the Lincoln Center under construction. For me this is a "six of one, half dozen of the other" choice. Placing it in the broader context of 1950s de-slumification on the West Side works, and gives the audience another touchpoint (and possibly a different way of looking at landmarks we know in 2021 and possibly have never thought about this way -- so arguably the contextualization makes more sense now than it would have when the show was first written). But it's equally defensible to place the kids in their own world, devoid of larger context, because that's how they would have experienced the story.

    7) Ethnic antagonism was obviously always part of the story, but it feels a little more targeted in the 2021 version of "Jet Song," with the Jets tearing down a Puerto Rican business' sign that has an Irish name underneath it, and vandalizing a mural of the Puerto Rican flag. Realistic, but it also makes them a little harder to sympathize with at the outset.

    8) A completely random thing: Before Tony and Maria's date, there is what sounds like a two-note music cue that segues into the whine of a subway car's brakes as it pulls into the station. The three notes that result are exactly the same as the three notes that begin "Somewhere."

    Of course there are a lot of differences in how songs are worked into the setting, but I think I have to go back and rewatch the 1961 version to comment on those. There are also some significant differences in how the lyrics of "America" are presented and whose mouths they are placed in. I haven't been able to totally wrap my head around those yet.
    Last edited: May 5, 2022
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  3. Fisherman's Worf

    Fisherman's Worf I am the Seaman, I am the Walrus, Qu-Qu-Qapla'!

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    I gotta say, I was skeptical of this, but I really enjoyed it. A very moving rendition of West Wide Story, especially with putting Rita Moreno in basically Doc's role but being more prominent, and as @tafkats pointed out, it really adds to the story.

    I grew up with the 1961 West Side Story being my mom's favorite movie, and I loved it (but was always a little iffy on white guys using brown face to play Puerto Ricans....), and I was lucky enough to see the musical in the round 10 or so years ago.

    Rita Moreno's Oscar winning performance in the 1961 movie was superb, and Ariana DeBose fucking nailed it in the same role (and very much deserved the Oscar she won as well!). I still need to go back and rewatch the 1961 version, and I know that Rita Moreno just embodied that role, but I would love to see how different and similar they both were.
  4. Shirogayne

    Shirogayne Gay™ Formerly Important

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    This movie was a masterpiece and I honestly think had it been released on time, at the end of 2020 as originally expected, it would've been a much bigger draw than it ended up being. I'm disappointed more people didn't see this version because it does what very few remakes do: say something new. Tony has more edge, there's more at stake than just a playground claim over the basketball court and the changes they made in the songs and sequences continue to serve the story being told. Personally, I thought moving "Coolx earlier in the story and turning it into a duet with Tony and Riff was an inspired choice to show how even with the best of intentions, it's not possible to save people who want to be reckless.

    As for making Anybodys trans, it's worth pointing out that they were the only character not directly inspired by the R&J play and that all four creators of WSS were queer men who may or may not have ever come out in their lifetimes.

    Frankly, as a cis woman with tomboyish interests, it never made a lick of sense to me why she wanted to be a part of the gang so badly. At least here, there's a motivation for him to be apart of the gang.

    Spielberg came correct with this remake. :yes: