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Movie review: Hardly a new way of living — and the bronze goes to West Side Story

The finish line is in sight for the cinematic year, and the race to qualify for innumerable best-of lists (and, naturally, the Oscars and the Globes) has paid immense dividends for moviegoers in recent weeks, who have had a heck of a time figuring out which titles are worthy of their filthy lucre. 

A time to take stock and make sense of yet another turbulent twelve months in this thing we call life then.

Me? I saw precisely five movies on the big screen in 2021, a far cry from requisite two or three a week living in Britain back in the day.

Covid may have done a number on the industry’s theatrical business, but thankfully it hasn’t stopped filmmakers from churning out great works. Many of the main titles debuted in the fourth and final quarter, which was as furiously busy as any in recent memory. 

Obviously with this pesky pandemic still on the rampage, there were many, many more new films viewed from the comfort of the couch, including The Father (moving), Red Rocket (colourful), Dune (ponderous), Spencer (as in Diana, adequate, though it really should have been titled Famous Woman On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown), and most recently, Aaron Sorkin’s classic-telly biopic Being The Ricardos, via the digital monolith that is Amazon Prime. Don’t believe the gripes: Nicole Kidman is surprisingly excellent as comedy legend Lucille Ball, despite her increasingly Madonna-esque airbrushed features that resemble a CGI’d Automatron.

Reality? It’s all in the mind, you know.

Nipping ferociously at Amazon’s ever-taller heels, streaming rivals Apple TV, Disney+ and the ever reliable Netflix weren’t exactly short of exclusives either. Though the majority of armchair titles that got me goo-goo eyed this year were a clutch of music films that included the worthwhile if predictably US-slanted multi-episode 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything.

The real weight was in a roll call of fair to fascinating single artist retrospectives, from the biopic that weighed in on the hoopla surrounding The United States vs Billie Holiday to documentaries on Tina (Turner), The Velvet Underground and The Sparks Brothers. And finally Peter Jackson’s mammoth Let It Be, an exhaustive re-look at several days in the life of The Beatles’ Get Back sessions in 1969.

As we waited, hesitantly, with masked breath for good old theatrical releases to return as if it was the Second Coming of cinema, it feels entirely appropriate to focus on the quintet of big screen viewings I put bum on seat for.

And if it’s alright with you I’ll even name them.

Respect (Confolens, September)

No Time To Die (Nice, October)

West Side Story (Nice, November)

House Of Gucci (Milan, December)

Spider-Man: No Way Home (Nice, December)

It’s more effective as a jukebox musical than a character piece, but you gotta give her the R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Jennifer Hudson is certainly competent as the First Lady of Soul in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect. 

As a performer who came of age in the overwrought, and wretchedly over-sung era of American Idol and X Factor, Hudson sometimes lacks the dramatic weight to flesh out Franklin’s complicated life, but she manages to inhabit those amazing songs themselves with pretty impressive phrasing – no small feat given the daunting legacy she’s tasked with bringing to life. Though having her and Carole King write a new song for “Aretha” to sing felt shoehorned and kinda gauche. Imagine if they’d given Rami Malek one of Queen’s godawful post-Freddie follies to warble during Bohemian Rhapsody? 

Cue Brian May pointing out the bleeding obvious: “Well, it’s not a documentary.”

No shit, Sherlock.

The latest Spider-Man adventure? I’ve honestly lost count how many there have been since I caught the first Toby Maguire one in Brussels almost twenty years ago, but I know I caught a couple of the sequels on telly, vaguely disinterested and clearly nothing better to do. 

No Way Home was my first opportunity to see Tom Holland in the role as the web-headed wonder. Had I not been completely turned off the whole Marvel/superhero multi-sequel shenanigans sometime after bagging a bit part in Captain America (and, it must be said, the rather better X Men: First Class) I may have been interested in seeing his Spider-Man earlier, as he certainly impressed when I saw him as Billy Elliot on the London stage as a barely teen. And these days he’s certainly easier on the eye than Maguire or Andrew Garfield, both of whom make extended cameos in a terribly self-referential/self-indulgent second half of the film. 

At least I think out was the second half, as I nodded off for a bit, no doubt puzzled why I’d chosen to see a piece of comic book crap from a “Cinematic Universe”.

Of course, no one has to love a huge bombastic blockbuster, least of all me. But neither should we forget why they’re so bloody popular. People need the escapist entertainment these films provide to forget about the difficulties of real life, even if, ultimately, for a couple of hours they’re the equivalent of McDonalds on the silver screen. 

Did somebody say just cheese?

In the cold light of day, movies like the Marvel monstrosities help studios afford films of a more artistic bent. They always have.

Not all film should be expected to be high art either. Sure, we need serious films. We need auteurs who craft important thought-provoking work. But we also need stupid comedies and dumb action films to provide that relief. Because in the end, they are just light entertainment. 

So without further ado, if I have to pick favourites then I’ve singled out the carefully graded filling of the five films I’ve listed, not the filler. Because the tasty triumvirate that is No Time To Die, West Side Story and House Of Gucci are my cinematic picks of the year. 

In reverse order, the bronze goes to West Side Story.

If you didn’t already know, West Side Story started out as a Broadway musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a then unknown Stephen Sondheim. Premiering in 1957, the theatre production was such an enormous success that four years later a film version was released, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The movie was a critical and commercial triumph, becoming the biggest picture of 1961, the highest grossing musical of all time until The Sound Of Music, and bagging 10 Oscars to solidify its place as one of the most successful stage to screen adaptations of all time. 

The original movie has such a special place in people’s hearts that I personally know of a person who’s watched the original more than 100 times. Heebie-jeebies. I’ve never watched any film even half as much. Not even, for what its worth, North By Northwest. 

It’s always dangerous to remake a well-known classic, but given that beloved status, a West Side Story reboot would not only be a hugely daunting prospect for any filmmaker, but it could also be argued that as the first film continues to attract audiences even today then why even bother touching it?

With Steven Spielberg’s track record covering everything from bicycle-riding aliens to the Holocaust it might seem strange that he would choose to focus on rebooting a 60-year-old musical instead of doing something new. After all, the original required imagination and a remake is, well, to be blunt, only a copy of greatness.

Still, it’s a Spielberg so the chances of it being a disastrous flop are subway level low. Indeed, one could be cynical and suggest that the director has already proved there’s bankable box office in resurrecting dinosaurs, especially as he’s opted to set the story in the same timeline as per the original. 

Conversely, that’s the thing that troubles me the most. West Side Story was a contemporary film when it first came out. Now it’s merely a period piece, even down to the ochered yellow-brown hues that place the viewer firmly into the gritty boomtown ratooning of post-war New York.

Of course, it goes without saying that West Side Story was an adaption from the outset, being a 20th century retelling of Romeo and Juliet that transposes the star-crossed lovers to the Upper West Side of 1950s Manhattan. One wonders if Baz Luhrmann’s daring reimagining of Shakespeare’s most celebrated story hadn’t happened in the ’90s, whether Spielberg would have been tempted to tread that path and contemporise his source material. 

The slightly clichéd story, featuring rival gangs – the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks – inspired a new, dirtied-up, transcendent tradition of street ballet for the stage and screen. But six decades on, it hasn’t nearly aged as well as its musical heartbeat.

While staying broadly faithful to the theatrical source material, Spielberg has tinkered here and there but updated nothing other than adding a new song, La Borinqueña.

West Side Story version 2.0 is just a very well-made remake that on the surface is about as relevant a depiction of today’s Young Americans as Guys And Dolls or Jersey Boys. Though of course, dig deeper and the issues of racism, division, prejudice and forbidden love are a plague on society just as much as they were then. We’re just better at highlighting it.

Compared to many of the original actors, who were criticised over time for their inauthentic casting and cultural shortcomings, Spielberg has struck gold with the more culturally representative and younger cast. 

Almost the entire ensemble turn in performances to die for, including Ariana DeBose, who has received a Golden Globe nomination for her role as Anita.

As well as being one of the few authentically Puerto Rican actors, the nonagenarian Rita Moreno won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Anita in the first film. Sixty years on, and as well as having her derrière on the executive producer’s chair Rita returns on screen as a newly created wizened old widow, Valentina, who runs the small shop where Tony works, assuming the role of his de facto parent, mentor and guiding angel.

She’s essentially the original movie’s Doc character reconceived gender-swap style. Eyeing a picture of her with her dead husband, who was white, the widow brings grounding and gravitas to every scene she’s in.

It’s a nice twist and allows the drug store owner to be respected by both Shark and Jet camps.

One minor tweak I did notice is that this adaptation is slightly edgier in its tone, particularly the fight scenes of the third act. As the leaders of the Jets and Sharks, Mike Faist (Riff) and David Alvaraz (Bernardo) brought a charismatic stubbornness to the characters.

Also beefed up is the role of Anybodys. Whereas in the 1961 story the character was a teenage girl who was referred to in code as a “tomboy,” in the refashioned film, the character gets more screen time and David Saint, who is the executor of author Arthur Laurents’ estate, confirmed that Anybodys “was a man born in a female’s body. End of story.”

Spielberg cast 31-year-old, non-binary actor Iris Menas in the role. The inclusion of a transgender character has resulted in the film being banned in six Middle Eastern states after Disney refused to censor the work.

And the Romeo and his Juliet?

Ansel Elgort as Tony is charismatic, and boasts a pretty powerful set of lungs. Hearing him sing Maria was a bit of a goosebumps moment. Then again, he has form: Elgort is an EDM artist in his own right, even remixing the likes of Lana Del Rey under the name Ansolo.

Rachel Zegler as Maria herself, was extremely impressive for making her acting debut in a major role. Her solo scenes were very good, and she has a great voice to boot. One to watch, most definitely. 

In a way, though, the real star of the show is the score. The symphonic, romantic music gives the film its heart and is almost as iconic as the story. Indeed, it’s proven near impossible to leave Bernstein and Sondheim’s irresistible soundtrack behind, even if the arrangements scream mid-century bombast.

The score toys with timing and expectation to gesture at the youth and complexities of its characters, incorporating Broadway jazz and pan-Latin riffs to create its own self-contained if often un-relatable language.

The film also boasts electrifying song-and-dance sequences featuring some of the recently deceased Sondheim’s most memorable songs, including America, I Feel Pretty and the soaring Somewhere. An ode to a utopia where love and acceptance prevail, it’s as beautiful and poignant as the day it was written, despite the Pet Shop Boys’ disco demolition of it in the 1990s.

A Shark in Jets’ clothing? Summing up, I would tell anyone who loves the story to certainly give this re-take a view. Despite the dated script and soundtrack, the central performances pull it all together in a way that allows West Side Story 2021 to surpass the original film.

And that’s because the film is so firmly invested in character. In addition, the fact that that Team SS went to great lengths to actually have Hispanics playing the Puerto Rican characters makes the whole affair feel more natural the second time around, bringing depth to the characters and allowing them to be ethically and ethnically authentic.

The music, choreography and cinematography are top notch, and you can really feel Spielberg’s passion for this project come through on the silver screen. He really is truly a master of his craft.

Indeed, West Side Story is such a glorious spectacle that you really should experience it on as big a screen as possible, and preferably in Dolby sound for that extra zing. That’s my musical movie for the year then. And despite being predominately gay I’m not even a great lover of musicals. Go figure.

But as I came away from my screening at Nice’s shiny and new Pathé Gare du Sud cinema, I overheard a woman of a certain age remark to her friend that the film was “not as good as the first one.”

Tell me what do you think? Should West Side Story have been remade or is it a vehicle to pander to woke Hollywood that should have been left well alone? You can leave a comment on the blog or at the Instagram or Facebook feeds.

Feliz Navidad.

Steve Pafford

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