Steven Spielberg musical is an empty spectacle-Entertainment News , Firstpost

Energy is all Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story has to offer. Not feeling. Rarely meaning.

Forget the questions for a second — Did we need a remake? Did we need scale and sweep to make up for our radical familiarity with a story? Did we need apologetic screenplay fixes, like unsubtitled Spanish dialogue in a film where half the cast of characters are Puerto Rican, as a progressive gesture? Did we, then, need to brown face a non-singer (Rachel Zegler) to play the lead Puerto Rican character in a musical? Letus leave these cine-existential questions of West Side Story aside for a second. Let us talk feelings. 

Awe. Pathos. Eros. What of them? What sets a musical-danceical apart from symmetric, arranged, choreographed limbs whacking in unison every now and then? What happens during the dance? Does the movie stand still? Does awe take over — oh look at the way that skirt flew off her frame and boomeranged back; oh look at the way his legs tap through in quick succession; oh look at the perfectly angular swings of these men? Just awe? Just awe. Sometimes, not even that.  

In her scathing, seminal review of the original West Side Story (1961), based on the stage musical, film critic Pauline Kael had written, “It’s a great musical for people who don’t like musicals.” She called the film, rather derisively, “a piece of cinematic technology,” one that is trained to stun you with its labour, its ingeniousness, its balletic excess, or at least stun you enough to not feel anything else and celebrate the film, nonetheless.

Director Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation fares none the better. A stylistically exuberant but unnecessary single shot — the camera tracks from a pile of metal through devastated top shots of New York City shredded down for redevelopment till it lands on a slab of metal on the floor — opens West Side Story. As a warning. As an invitation.

Still from West Side Story

That scale and sweep is all this film has to offer. You have rival gangs — the Jets, white boys who are feeling disenfranchised by the sudden post-War, globalising spirit of New York that has left them behind, and the Sharks, Puetro Ricans on the block. On the surface, the tension is racial. White men telling brown men (sometimes women) to go back to where they came from. (It is telling, perhaps, that while the Sharks sing nostalgically about the beauty of the Puerto Rico they left behind, the Jets dig their heels deeper in sympathetic, yet ironic, retellings of their “white-trash” lives, filled with drugs, alcohol, and despair.)

But we recognise something resembling economic anxiety, masked by this human preference for the familiar raised to a level of bigoted comfort. The film tries to dig deeper, by painting growth in New York City as the disenfranchising, gentrifying ghost, pushing the Jets and the Sharks out of their apartments, which are to be redeveloped and resold to a richer hoi polloi. But the film quickly succumbs to its toddler-appropriate moralising, which Spielberg, in interviews, has emphatically stated — how this film is relevant to our times when racial divides have become chasms. So what? Can film now be advertised as balm? 

Embedded in this are Tony (Ansel Elgort), who founded and then left the Jets, now reforming quietly on the sidelines after a stint in jail, and Maria (Zegler), the sister to the head honcho of the Sharks. This cross-racial love story is bereft of any sexuality, but not without teasing us. Spielberg-regular, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński gives us the outlines of their soft lips before they press up against each other, lighting it from below so the edges are clearly sketched before being smudged in eros. But right as they kiss, the camera moves to odd angles, almost trying to hide the kiss itself. There is nothing remotely sensual about their courting. It is charming, sure, but getting caked and confected actors to be charming on screen together, surely, is low hanging fruit, isn’t it?

Instead, all the heat in Tony is reserved for the brash boyishness he shares with his childhood friend Riff (Mike Faist) — the lithe, limp wristed, musically masculine head of the Jets, who is introduced heterosexual-first by showing a woman walk out of a room before him with post-coital sweat. Tony and Riff tug at each other, swoon, beg, shove, their silhouettes keep knocking against each other. 

This film takes the Romeo Juliet palette, the same story, the same songs by Leonard Bernstein, the same lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim — whose appearance as a voice note in Tik Tik Boom! felt more heartrending as an ode than this film — and twists it a little. The ‘America’ song is not on a terrace, but on the roads, not at night, but during harsh daylight across traffic. (The pit stains on the tight dresses were removed during post production, for we should feel but not see the heat.) The ‘I Feel Pretty’ song is not in a bridal shop but in a closed mall at night that Maria and her friends have to sweep clean. Intimate or contained songs are now slashed open. But to what effect?

Just awe. Sometimes, not even that. The ‘America’ song has such a bursting, energetic presence, it felt like it could exist on its own and be celebrated just as this film is being celebrated.

But energy is all these songs have to offer. Not feeling. Rarely meaning.

They could be talking about the contemporary price of tomatoes in Yiddish and the effect would not be much different, because there is no drama in the dance, only spectacle. 

But for all the empty spectacle, the film is lit like a time machine, with flares and filters that push you back in time, or at its finest, takes you out of time. The first time Tony and Maria lay eyes on each other on the dance floor is a scene with stunning pageantry of direction, choreography, and cinematography — Elgort and Zegler staring at each other across the room with a rotating rove of flounce and fabric on dancers who are cutting the harsh floodlights like butter knives. That moment came and went.

The next surge of beauty was during the end credits. A montage of light falling on different parts of the city, warm winter afternoon light, like the Oslo filter on Instagram, falling on bricks and chimneys on terraces and worn-out cobblestones. The city is empty. Not one soul. The poetic resonance of this montage is striking after seeing two warring gangs pummel each other dead. The feeling is striking but silent. The light does all the talking, for thankfully, we do not have people singing it.

West Side Story is slated to release in Indian cinemas this Friday on 10 December.

Rating:

Prathyush Parasuraman is a critic and journalist, who writes a weekly newsletter on culture, literature, and cinema at prathyush.substack.com.

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