West Side Story: Spielberg succeeds in his bet [critique]

What was the point of retouching this classic Hollywood musical? Without betraying anything, Spielberg reappropriates the monument. Exciting, of course.

The rehabilitation of West Side Story by Steven Spielberg was a flop in theaters in December 2021, but no matter: the editorial staff highly recommends this twisting musical comedy, back this evening on W9. And this for multiple reasons.

Here is our review “falling for something”shared with Quentin Tarantinowho never stopped repeating that the filmmaker of Jurassic Park and of Schindler's List should have won the Oscar for Best Picture for this work.

Steven Spielberg toasts the end of filming on West Side Story

One of the best things that ever happened to Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly his meeting with the brilliant Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in 1993. The way in which he was able to adapt his technique to an aesthetic already in place now has the value of a signature and a refuge. Kaminski became the master's most faithful ally. The light with its very identifiable horizontal reflections which can alternately dazzle or guide the eye, the predominance of orange and blue hues, perfume a world in ruins or threatened with destruction. The present is in a blind spot, viewed from the future or the past. Spielberg's films deliberately place themselves on the edge of an abyss. Hence this original misunderstanding, long since corrected, which would see Spielberg as an entertainer for toddlers. He became quite the opposite.

His meeting with Kaminski for Schindler's List in 1993 certainly marks a milestone and attests, if not to a change, to an affirmation. Everything about him is serious, shrouded in a nameless sadness. Cinema is seen as a play of shadows where massacres are often kept at bay by the magic afforded by the staging. For example, it is enough to review Munich to measure the gap that there can be between an inspired staging (each sequence imposes its rhythm) and a scenario that is less so. In the end there will always be this impression that Spielbergian art is entirely housed in this formidable capacity to reconfigure and reinterpret everything, including horror (see. He also paid the price for this with the release of the controversial Schindler's List). Spielberg is an iconoclast in this regard.

10 Things to Know About 1961's West Side Story

This rereading of West Side Story (the press service is fighting like hell to avoid the term “remake”) is perhaps the best example. Who but an unconscious worker could take on Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins' work from 1961? Spielberg of course. The filmmaker, who had never signed a musical comedy until now, does not bow down to any idol, possibly rewriting history or intending to perpetuate it. This was already the case for War of the Worldshis other remake.

The result here is very personal and has nothing to do with a Christmas fantasy. It is indeed the chaos that Spielberg films, that is to say the perpetual confrontation of those without ranks, here embodied by two rival gangs but coming from the same world (a working-class district of New York in the process of what was not yet called gentrification). The elites are surely rubbing their hands in this fratricidal war. These only exist through its representatives: a buffoonish police force led by a sadistic leader. All these excluded from an American dream cracked everywhere (the plot takes place in 1957 when the original comedy premiered on Broadway) fight among themselves to better self-destruct. It is the staging which expresses this duality in one shot already “classic”. The cast shadows of the Jets and Sharks mix like specters on the ground, to the point of merging. The image of naive expressiveness is required to become a reference.

The Walt Disney Company France

Of West Side Story, we are mainly talking about the libretto by Arthur Laurents, the screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the words of Stephen Sondheim (who died last November 26) and the music of Leonard Bernstein. Their work is so inscribed in the collective memory that it is no longer even cumbersome. Spielberg doesn't touch anything but doesn't lean heavily on it. The singing and dancing sequences, as inspired as they are, do not stand out from the rest. Nothing is particularly salient in this enterprise and certainly not the two lovebirds – the Romeo and Juliet of the West Side – played by rather dim performers with Disney Channel profiles (the Baby Driver Ansel Elgort and the smooth Rachel Zegler). If anyone had to stand out, it would be the revelation Mike Faist. Nervous and dry, he makes Riff, the leader of the Jets, a skinned person, doomed in advance.

Nothing remarkable then – which is far from being a fault! -, everything is observed by an omniscient camera but never overhead. As in an old-fashioned B series that the film is not, it is a small territory that the story surveys: a street corner, a grocery store, a hangar, a balcony… The screenplay by Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln…), is solid and does not need to push certain knobs to the maximum to reveal the modernity of the subject, or even the perfect synchronicity of the film (racism, the central place of women, the fight of the working classes… ). Steven Spielberg, iconoclast and woke!

Behind the scenes of West Side Story's musical numbers

Janusz Kaminski, for his part, covers this little world with a halo that is ultimately not very mysterious in appearance. Everything is clear, nothing is hidden. The fact remains that the more West Side Story advances, the longer the night drags on. Spielberg therefore achieved the unthinkable. His version of the myth will of course not eclipse the original masterpiece; his obvious pessimism even argues against possible posterity. It simply adds to a coherent corpus despite its apparent disparity, where the sovereign light allows the world to be held more or less upright. Steven Spielberg autographed this West Side Story to his father.

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