Cages and ladders. Cages and ladders. And blinding lights shining in my eyes. When the opening sequence of the new West Side Story wandered like a person lost, over a handful of ladders not standing up, but laying on their side, I knew there was going to be something more to this film. It’s the kind of powerful filmic metaphor that Spielberg has done in his best work – like the little purple wildflowers filling the screen in the opening of The Color Purple, or the dead fish surrounding the face down Ryan brother on the beach in Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s new take on Tony’s and Maria’s tragic love story is full of haunting visual metaphors just begging to be reconciled in the viewer’s mind and heart. Those visuals, combined to that incredible music, makes the new West Side Story a powerful cinematic experience, and Spielberg’s most beautiful movie.
Let’s get the politics out of the way right off the top. I admit, after having seen some conservative writers’ clever dismissal of the film as “Woke Side Story,” I was prepared to hate it too. I gleefully took a picture of the empty theater at my afternoon screening, and posted it on Facebook so my friend and I could all exult in a $300 million dollar failure of the Hollywood elite. Certainly, the Hollywood Left of which Stephen Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, are royalty, has earned the cynicism and suspicion with which the red half of America regards them. But when I felt my heart swell at so many places in the movie, I knew I had to try to be better than that. We’re never going to stop this hateful red Montague-blue Capulet cycle we are trapped in culturally of we don’t acknowledge that everyone has some truth to share.
We’re always wrong when we let our prejudice stop us from hearing the truth, or praising the good, or experiencing the beautiful wherever it appears. Which, ironically, is the core message of West Side Story in all its various incarnations. But one sign that the film transcends the politics of the moment is that some of the leftward mainstream critics have expressed disappointment in it. Several, like Richard Brody in The New Yorker (“Stephen Spielberg’s “West Side Story” Remake Is Worse Than the Original,” December 14, 2021) and Clarissa Loughray in The Independent take issue with the film for not being woke enough, or at all.
Some conservatives are making a lot of Spielberg’s decision to have the Puerto Rican characters speak Spanish without including sub-titles. Granted, Spielberg invited this kind of attack in a press junket where he let loose a weird screed about not making Spanish subservient to English in the film. But whatever. It really works in the movie by making those “inside the sub-culture” scenes more natural. It reminded me of Mel Gibson’s similar creative choice in The Passion of the Christ. Where are the conservative objections to making English sub-servient to Aramaic in that piece? Honestly, subtitles would have been clunky on top of the beautiful visuals in either film. And they aren’t needed. The meanings of the scenes are obvious from context.
Forget what you’ve read. Spielberg’s West Side Story is much less a political commentary than it is a kind of aching, near desperate, resetting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. That play is about intolerance. But because that word has been so overused in our current context that it has become just another “dog whistle” for political polarization, I prefer to use Dante’s term for societal division, namely, factionalism. Much of Dante’s Divine Comedy makes the case that the worst effect of evil is division. It divides us in our souls, disrupting the harmony that should exist between mind and body. It disrupts our relationships, causing the disharmony of injustice, coercion, and violence. And it divides us from God and His Divine Grace as our fundamental animating principle. Which means we die. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy about factionalism unto death of the beautiful young. So too, the “message” in West Side Story is that when we humans faction off, we breed hatred, which always eventually festers into murder. Spielberg adds to Jerome Robbins’ original vision about factionalism, a quality of near despair. His West Side Story is a cinematic crying out – maybe to heaven, maybe just to the cosmos – “We are trapped and killing ourselves. Is there any hope for us?”
There is nowhere in the film where this point is made more viscerally than in the daring creative choice to have 90 year old Rita Moreno sing the iconic love song, “There’s a Place for Us.” In all prior versions, this song is reserved to Tony and Maria to sing. I admit I felt a bit of disappointment when I realized Moreno was getting the piece. I wanted to hear the song in its full musical glory. But the oddness of this choice compels the viewer to ask, “Why is she singing this?” It’s more than just a nod to the actress’ Oscar-winning turn as Anita back in the first film. Played here, with the character Valentina looking at a photo of herself as a young woman beside her husband, the scene says, “We are still where we were all those years ago.” What was true in Dante’s 13th Century, and in Shakespeare’s 16th, and in Jerome Kern’s 20th, is still painfully true in our 21st. We’re not getting any better. But the song absolutely carries a note of hope. When Moreno sings about a place somewhere where there is peace, I thought, “Yes, heaven.”
So much of this film is shot with the characters trapped in cages. Sometimes this is achieved through the shadows and lines in the frames. Over and over throughout the film, faces look through bars on windows, on fences, on whatever convenient structure brilliant cinematographer, Jaroslav Kaminski, could find to put his camera behind. It’s most notable in the scene of Tony and Maria on her balcony the night they first meet. Try as they might they just can’t get through the bars and barriers that are between them. It’s an anguished metaphor, but such good cinema it made me laugh out loud.
Characters clamor up and down metal fences like monkeys because there are no doors. Where there is a door to be opened – when Tony is trying to get into the rumble area, it takes the efforts of two people, Tony the Jet, and Gino the Shark to get the door up. There is drapery hanging in the middle of rooms keeping people from seeing completely. Even the lines of laundry hanging over the Puerto Rican quarter symbolize the separations we have erected among us.
And then there’s the ladder thing. Ladders recur in several scenes, just at hand, but often they’re useless because they aren’t standing up or they’re just going nowhere, as in the scene in the police station. It said to me that we have all the tools to overcome our factionalism, but we don’t have the ability on our own to get past ourselves and use them.
The other main visual metaphor in the film is the glaring lights. Generally, bursts of lights that make the audience blink are a mark of terrible cinematography. But here, it’s obviously intentional. In frame after frame, the spotlights are turned on the audience. The rays frequently obscure the action and the characters, making the viewing experience one of being partially blinded. This is what factionalism does to us. It makes it impossible for us to see others in their wholeness, which is the definition of prejudice. But I think it is also a technique meant to isolate the viewer under the hot exposing light. How are we each responsible for creating factions in our own small worlds of reality? It reminds me of Chesterton’s answer to the question, “What is wrong with the world?” He said, “I am.”
The whole pallet of the film is complex and thoughtful. Many of the exterior daytime scenes are almost overexposed and washed out. There are bright beautiful colors here and there – as when the Puerto Rican men and women square off in “America.” These contrast with the dark shadowy worlds of the Sharks and Jets. It’s a spectrum that establishes visually that human beings carry the potential for both luminous hues and terrifying darkness. Have to note here the wonderful “I Feel Pretty” sequence which is shot in a weird department store where rich people go during the day while Puerto Rican women clean it by night. The light in this sequence is so perfect as to feel artificial. The metaphor is hard to ignore.
And then there are a few respectful nods to spirituality as possibly a place of hope for us, the factionalized. The marriage scene of Tony and Maria which prior versions set in a bridal shop, is here set in front of a stained-glass window in the Cloisters Museum in the Bronx. This brings the presence of God into the story in a way that the bridal shop treatments never did. Then, after the rumble scene where two men die, there is a tight closeup of a small statue of the Blessed Virgin by a candle. Pull back to reveal several of the Puerto Rican Sharks huddled in prayer around it. The movie stops short of saying prayer can save us, but it definitely makes turning to God for help something born of instinct in us.
But it’s the music that makes the movie. This movie is missing most of the stridency that always made prior versions of WSS so draining for me. In this new version, there is a quality in these famous songs that is earthier and more organic than how I’ve heard them before. It’s a much more natural sound as opposed to manufactured Broadway and so much pop music today. The natural timbre of the singer’s voices is very pronounced here making it the kind of singing that is easy on the ear.
It’s not a perfect film. As with all writer Tony Kushner’s dramatic efforts, the script alternates brilliant lines with long dialogue scenes that are wincingly over-written. There are clunky, nakedly, expository scenes that really drag down the crucial first act. They’re certainly there to try and bring a new audience of young people up to speed on the story that all of us old people know so well. But the good news is there is almost no progressive sanctimony in the script. Both the white Jets and the brown Sharks come off as thuggish villains. The intolerance is played as a human foible, not as a white one. Clearly, so as not to undermine the film’s main idea, Spielberg reined Kushner way in here and kept him off his trademark high horse.
As a movie, West Side Story (2021) is so much better than the one that, as basically a filmed stage play, swept the Oscars back in 1962. This film uses the rich potential of cinematic techniques all the way through. The montage towards the end which intercuts five different locations where some characters are singing “Tonight,” and some are singing about the rumble is one of the best edited juxtapositions since Michael Corleone became the Godfather/godfather. This film presents a fully realized neighborhood, where the prior film presented a handful of sets in sound stages.
But comparison between the two films isn’t ultimately constructive. There are two different visions here, with two completely different filmmaking styles. This new West Side Story is a film worth seeing. Try and block out the politics of who made it, and put your phone down, and stop looking at your watch, and just absorb it as it plays out. If you let it, it can make your spirit soar. It can make your heart long to be better.
Barbara R. Nicolosi, PhD is the Director of Screenwriting Programs at Regent University, in Virginia Beach. She is a member of the WGA-West and the writer of the 2020 Newmarket release, Fatima.