West Side Story (2021)

Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

West Side Story

I remember when I first heard about this remake, I couldn’t quite understand what they were going to add by redoing it. The original is a widely-acclaimed classic — why remake it? I should’ve remembered one of the golden rules of cinema: always trust Spielberg.

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with West Side Story, it’s a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, with the two warring families replaced by two warring street gangs. Although the teenage love story is still present, obv., the strength here is more in its depiction of cultural clashes between different groups of immigrants — essentially, the heart of the American experience. Like most musicals, it started out on the stage before being filmed in 1961. I’m not going to dispute the classic status of that film, but it has dated — most problematically in the use of brown face to depict Puerto Rican characters, but also in its overall style, which, though shot in part on the real streets of New York, is quite stagey. Plus it made various changes to the original work, primarily in the order and therefore context of multiple musical numbers; something that Spielberg, as a fan of the stage production, sort to restore.

In short, it worked. Well, I’ve never seen the stage production, so I don’t know if this film is more faithful to it, but it feels like a superior execution of the constituent elements. Primarily, it deepens some of the characters and their motives, most especially Tony (the Romeo figure) and Chino (his ostensible love rival, though you’d be forgiven for missing that entirely in the ’61 film). In the original film, I almost felt like Tony and Maria were a subplot, only being regarded as the leads because they’re Romeo and Juliet in what we know is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Here, they get more screen time, both together and apart, and more shades to their characters, so it actually feels like they’re the leads. That doesn’t suddenly make them the most interesting characters, but you can’t have everything.

Dance in the streets in America

This added depth comes from the screenplay as much as the performances, which were great in the original but are fantastic here too. The Oscar-winning turn by Ariana DeBose as Anita is indeed the standout, but Rachel Zegler is perfectly sweet as Maria, and Rita Moreno thankfully has more to offer than just a tribute cameo in the Doc role. There was a lot of talk that Mike Faist was snubbed by awards for his Riff. He’s good, but doesn’t quite equal Russ Tambyln for me. The weak link is clearly Ansel Elgort as Tony. I had wondered if people were just saying that because of the allegations against him, but he’s not ideal for the role. That said, I do think he’s adequate, and the only reason to find his presence actively distasteful is if you can’t set aside the real-life stories.

All these comparisons are inevitable, and it’s mostly in the eye of the beholder which individual aspect is better in which version; but I think it’s undeniable that Spielberg’s film looks more cinematic. It’s not just superior to the ’61 film, but a masterclass in itself: the lighting, the shot composition, the camera moves, the blocking; several songs are more excitingly staged than in the original, not least arguably the most famous, America. DoP Janusz Kaminski has been doing sterling work with Spielberg for decades now, so perhaps it’s easy to overlook just how talented they both are. In an era when mega-budgeted films increasingly look like TV shows that lean on green screen to scrape by, this is Cinema at its purest.

Perhaps that’s why, overall, I prefer this version. Sure, the original is a classic, but Spielberg’s film is ultimately more cinematic (less stage-minded), less campy (though it doesn’t entirely ditch that aspect), and more modern, but appropriately so (with race-appropriate casting instead of awkward brownface). It’s perhaps proof that any remake can be worthwhile if done for the right reasons by the right people.

5 out of 5

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #77

Hope & despair.
Tragedy & love.
Romeo & Juliet.

Full Title: William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 1st November 1996 (USA)
UK Release: 28th March 1997
First Seen: VHS, c.1998

Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Claire Danes (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Stardust)

Director
Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue!)

Screenwriters
Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue!)
Baz Luhrmann (Australia, The Great Gatsby)
William Shakespeare (My Own Private Idaho, 10 Things I Hate About You)

Based on
Some play, apparently.

The Story
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, whose misadventured piteous overthrows doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. The fearful passage of their death-marked love and the continuance of their parents’ rage, which, but their children’s end, naught could remove, is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

Our Heroes
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, kids from feuding families who fall in love despite that conflict.

Our Villains
The rest of their families, whose animosity to one another, and thereby opposition to the coupling, results in tragedy.

Best Supporting Character
Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, brought to flamboyant life by Harold Perrineau.

Memorable Quote
“Oh, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet” — Juliet

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” — Juliet (rarely misquoted, regularly misunderstood)

Memorable Scene
The prologue, which sets out the film’s stylistic stall with a fast-cut and dramatically-scored montage of ultra-modern imagery to visualise the play’s prologue, as delivered by a TV news anchorwoman. It’s especially effective when paired with the first full scene, where the young men of the Capulet and Montague families clash at a gas station, which is similarly front-loaded with the film’s modern design, fast dialogue, and hyper-editing.

Memorable Music
The other films in the Red Curtain Trilogy (see Next Time) of course have a prominent role for music — one is about dancing, the other is a musical. While you’d think a Shakespeare adaptation would be all about the dialogue, the soundtrack plays a key role in Luhrmann’s vision, and certainly connected with viewers. They even once released a dedicated Music Edition on DVD. There is a score (memorable not least for its variation on O Fortuna, the much-reused O Verona), but it’s the songs by contemporary musicians — the kind of things the characters would listen to, I suppose — that have the greatest effect. Most recognisable is Des’ree’s Kissing You, which plays when the eponymous lovers first meet.

Technical Wizardry
The film is well known for its exuberant camerawork and editing. Obviously much of that is done in post-production, but it required on-set ingenuity as well. For the scene where Romeo and Juliet first kiss in a cramped elevator, the set walls were made in sections which could be raised to let the camera in. In the finished shot the camera circles the pair at speed, meaning the crew had to hurriedly raise the walls to let the camera past but speedily replace them to maintain the illusion.

Making of
Famously, the film modernises the characters’ use of swords and daggers by turning them into the brand names of guns. Shakespeare described Tybalt’s swordsmanship as “showy”, so to retain this for the film actor John Leguizamo worked with a choreographer, John O’Connell, to create a style of gunplay inspired by flamenco dancing.

Previously on…
Romeo + Juliet is the middle film in director Baz Luhrmann’s thematically-linked Red Curtain Trilogy. The first is dancing drama Strictly Ballroom.

Next time…
The Red Curtain Trilogy concluded with Moulin Rouge. There are also plenty of other modern-styled Shakespeare adaptations that you could argue owe this a debt.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Art Direction-Set Decoration)
4 BAFTAs (Director, Adapted Screenplay, Music, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Costumes)
1 MTV Movie Award (Female Performance (Claire Danes))
5 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Kiss — it lost to Independence Day!)

What the Critics Said
“While Shakespeare might well have applauded Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s souped-up version of Romeo and Juliet, traditionalists [including many critics, if you check out Rotten Tomatoes] are sure to despise the psychedelic tunes and the flashy sets of this audacious adaptation. Not to mention Mercutio as drag queen. For all of its departures, Luhrmann’s largely successful reinterpretation is far from irreverent. He takes liberties with the world, but never the words of this achingly beautiful love story. […] Luhrmann, who pitted youthful brio against conventional wisdom in Strictly Ballroom, clearly enjoys thumbing his nose at authority. Perhaps he’s an eternal teenager, or merely a bit mad. In any case, his excesses only prove Shakespeare’s profundity and the timelessness of his themes.” — Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“in the play, and almost every adaptation, Romeo visits Juliet’s tomb, poisons himself and dies, and then Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead, and stabs herself to death. In this version, however, Juliet wakes up just as Romeo downs the poison, so she watches him die in her arms. Seeing her slowly start to wake as Romeo prepares to kill himself is almost unbearable. Especially the way the dialogue is manipulated; all the lines remain the same, but are just said at slightly different times (when Juliet laments the fact that Romeo didn’t leave any poison for her, she’s talking to him directly this time). And when Romeo dies, Juliet is left without her monologue, because she’s said everything to Romeo already. So instead, she cries and then wordlessly shoots herself in the head. It’s pretty gut-wrenching.” — Elizabeth, Chris and Elizabeth Watch Movies

Verdict

Shakespeare got a do-over for the MTV generation in this textually faithful re-imagining of arguably the Bard’s most famous work. Above, I alluded to critics’ dismissal of this adaptation — here are some choice quotes: “the kind of violent swank-trash music video that may make you feel like reaching for the remote”; “a classic play thrown in the path of a subway train”; “destined for the trash heap of Shakespeare adaptations”; “a monumental disaster.” I’d argue its subsequent, and largely enduring, success has put those old fuddy-duddies on the wrong side of history. Certainly, the fact it starred heartthrob du jour Leonardo DiCaprio ensured it reached an audience that otherwise would’ve had no interest. Oh, and it won BAFTAs — the film awards of Shakespeare’s homeland — for direction and screenplay. Shows what you know, yankees. Cultural impact aside, it’s a wildly inventive, daring work, which keeps it fresh and exciting even when its mid-’90s antics should by all rights have dated it into oblivion.

#78 will… kick it Jesus-style!

West Side Story (1961)

2007 #53
Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins | 146 mins | DVD | PG

West Side Story“Everything’s free in America,” goes the famous line; but this film is probably more accurately summed up in its following line: “For a small fee in America”.

For, surprisingly, underneath the song and dance numbers (some impressive, some embarrassing), the Shakespearian romance story, and the vibrant and beautiful cinematography, beats the heart of a gritty, political, social drama about gangs, racism, immigration, and more — issues that seem as pertinent today as ever.

It’s a brilliant film, which falls short of full marks only thanks to some of those weaker song & dance bits (and I might be being a tad unfair there).

4 out of 5