The first thing one notices in Steven Spielberg’s critics-favourite adaptation of the all-time classic musical West Side Story is the vocalisation of its characters: they don’t just sing, they talk… and they talk a lot. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

Actually, characters and their expositions are the second thing one notices. When the West Side Story opens, Spielberg wows us with his in-built knack: the sweeping, complicated camerawork.

Flying over a neighborhood under demolition in Manhattan’s West Side — the setting is 1957, and factually accurate; the construction of the Lincoln Center has its own share of historical backstory — the camera swoops over half-torn buildings, veers close to the debris, its lens barely a few feet away from colliding with railings, soars dangerously close to the wrecking ball, and then plummets to the ground, from where four young neighbourhood hoodlums jump out, pillaging soda cans from wasted shops.

Spielberg’s long time editor Michael Kahn’s, and the new addition Sarah Broshar’s, snappy edits cut to the beat of the boys’ swag-ish movement. The precision of the cut is uncanny and, yet for some reason, very apparent.

How does Steven Spielberg’s critically lauded West Side Story compare to the much-celebrated 1961 cinematic version?

The camera, after establishing the state of the neighbourhood and the hoodlums, makes another pit-stop at a crane, from where another one of the boys disembarks with his squeeze; the state of their undress reveals what just transpired inside, and the extent of their relationship. However, not all relationships are this hot and heavy.

West Side Story is a romance-drama of star-crossed lovers — an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (yes, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but that’s how the story goes), transmuted to late ’50s America, brimming with wayward young bloods, idealistic hoo-hah, tragedy, and great music (created by Jerome Robbins, the music is by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, in what was his debut).

We will learn that the boys we saw are called Jets, one of two young gangs in West Side, who dance around the streets, bully shop owners a little, scuffle with another gang — the Puerto Rican Sharks, their mirror images — vandalise drawings on neighbourhood walls (they paint over the Puerto Rican flag, inciting fisticuffs) and get talked down to by the law and their girlfriends.

Actually, scratch the last part. Getting talked down to by their mates was Robert Wise’s thing, not Spielberg’s; his is painting great frames — his use of shadows, light, composition and the placement of characters to get that small, particular, eye-catching shot, still cannot be beat by anyone in the industry.

Yet, something goes missing when the characters in Spielberg’s film articulate; they break the ambience and the appeal. The dialogues, by Tony Kushner, who wrote Munich and Lincoln for Spielberg, feel like a speed-bump.

When Wise directed the 1961 film adaptation of the stage musical, its lack of dialogue didn’t feel like a deterrent. The characters were colourful enough, and the frames, with some snazzy creative calls in its editing and camerawork (nothing can be as kinetic as Spielberg’s, of course) felt restrained, and perhaps more appealing.

The old West Side Story bagged a lot of accolades (it got 11 Oscar nominations, won 10 and lost out on just one), and became the highest-grossing film of the year.

Spielberg’s film, having the highest kudos from reviewers, will bag its own share of nominations in the coming award season. Right now, though, it is tanking.

It barely made 53 million dollars in the US — that’s half of its budget — weeks after its release, partly since this is a bad time for movies, but mostly because this new adaptation has a lot on its mind.

Spielberg’s film is suffused with a heavy burden to be factually accurate, racially representative and ethnically sensitive.

The new film atones and amends quite a few lyrics to make things right. Take for example the song America (my favourite number in the film, by the way). The original musical had these lyrics: “Puerto Rico, You Ugly Island, Island of Tropic Diseases.” The 1961 film changed these into: “Puerto Rico, My Heart’s Devotion, Let it Sink Back into the Ocean.”

The natives became restless, of course, for all the right reasons — the bitter-sweet longing of an immigrant race was turned into snarky retorts by the filmmakers at the time.

Spielberg’s version cuts away the extremism. The song’s verses now sing: “Puerto Rico, You Lovely Island, Island of Tropical Breezes.” I personally think it was scaled back too much.

Spielberg went the extra-mile to make sure the casting is also culturally accurate (he mixes sub-ethnicities from Puerto Rico, which is how it should have been); this creative decision was publicised a lot by the film’s PR.

In the new film, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler play the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria — one a thorough New York native, the other hailing from a Columbian-Polish heritage (the leads, by the way, don’t have the chemistry — but neither did Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, in my opinion).

Wise’s film had only one Puerto Rican actress, Rita Moreno, who played Anita — the girlfriend to the Shark’s leader and one of the story’s strongest characters (Moreno also has a newly written supporting role in Spielberg’s film). The rest of Wise’s cast had actors who would fit the part, and were sellable, but not racially accurate.

George Chakiris, who plays Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, was Greek. Russ Tamblyn, the leader of the Jets, was well-known, and could pull off gymnastic dance moves without breaking his form. Natalie Wood, who had Russian heritage, was a starlet and the lead. Almost all of their singing voices were dubbed by professionals.

In Spielberg’s film, every actor sings their part. The music is lovely (how can it not be), but the choreography, by Justin Peck, perhaps not as effective. The 1961 version still grabs one’s attention; also, there was a definite distinction between the movements of the Jets and the Sharks, reflecting their ethnic differences. In Peck’s work, it all mostly looks the same.

The chief reason is, ironically, Spielberg’s cinematography (the film is lensed by Janusz Kaminski, his regular). As effective as it is, it doesn’t work in the musical numbers. Rather than look at the spectacle of the dance from outside, the camera wizzes inside, as if a dancer itself. With little to no breathing space, the frames, despite some brilliant placements, feel asphyxiating.

In making the film his own, Spielberg’s self-styled branding — outspoken and ostensible — chips something away. Seemingly, West Side Story is a picture-perfect remake of an adaptation. However, it’s the little things that change one’s feeling…and sometimes those little changes count for a lot.

West Side Story is rated PG-13. It is playing in cinema screens worldwide

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 9th, 2022

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