I’ve been waiting for Steven Spielberg to do a full fledged musical since I saw the opening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” back in 1984. I think his sensibility and eye are right for musical sequences and that he could stage some pretty energetic numbers and make them look engaging and not static, well it turns out I was right. I’m not sure why he chose this material, but once he committed to it I think he did a solid job justifying a new version of the award winning classic. I think I still prefer the Robert Wise version of the movie, mostly because everything was fresh but Spielberg found some ways to fill out the story, rearrange to songs and change some of the characters delivering the songs, in a way that is satisfying.
The screenplay by Tony Kushner, with whom Spielberg collaborated on with “Munich” and “Lincoln“, adds some details to the backgrounds of our characters to flesh them out. Riff has a story that is spelled out rather than implied as it was before, Bernardo has been transformed into a professional boxer, and Tony is provided with some background that adds resonance to his character that maybe wasn’t there before. In some ways, the transition for Bernardo’s character is the most problematic, because he seems less sympathetic as a professional fighter, engaging in a street fight. The character of Chino is also built up and it provides some additional pathos to the final outcome of the plot.
In moving around the order of the songs and changing the characters who perform them, Spielberg and Kushner help the character of Tony in one case and weaken him in the second. The decision to give the “Cool” number to Tony and Riff, works well giving Ansel Elgort and Mike Faist, an additional chance to show the gap between them, even as friends, and to make a stronger impact on the audience. While I appreciate the desire to include Rita Moreno more in the story, giving her the “Somewhere” moment robs Tony and Maria of a poignant moment that would make their tragedy more emotional at the end.
So what else has changed? Well, the fight scenes are more brutal from the get go. Baby John doesn’t just get beat up, he is mutilated by a piercing of his ear done with a nail. Bernardo and Tony fight and the punches Bernardo lands when Tony is trying to hold his temper and let things chill, are hard and to the face as well as the gut. You can almost feel them and they look more realistic than most fight scenes, even those you might see in a boxing film. Both groups of opponents are struggling with the idea of losing their territory, not to each other but to the progress of NYC itself. That fuels a bit of the anger so that it does not feel entirely based in ethnic hatred.
Some people have complained that Spielberg has reimagined the story as a “woke” parable on immigration. There has also been some defensiveness on the part of traditionalists that all the Spanish dialogue in not subtitled. The immigration issue is not any more prevalent than it was in 1961, so that seems foolish to jump on. The Spanish issue is a non issue since almost all those important lines are repeated bak in some form in English, and even a non-Spanish speaker like me could understand most of what is said by context, tone and the few words of Spanish that I know. Maybe the strongest argument against calling this film “woke” is that Officer Krupke, goes from being an overt racist in the 1961 film, to a fairly sympathetic character in this one. Lieutenant Schrank is also not taking sides in the conflict, but seems more interested in avoiding kids being killed.
Two great visual moments that clearly show that Spielberg was thinking about how the movie could look different yet still be familiar, come in the Gang confrontation and in the “America” number. The long shadows approaching each other from opposite directions in the salt warehouse, builds the confrontation moment nicely and being shot from above makes it feel more ominous. The girls dancing down the street in the daylight, pursued by the boys, instead of remaining on the rooftop at night, keeps the excitement and cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics, but transposes it to a setting that feels even more joyful.
The bad news here is that the film has flamed out. It did not live up to expectations at the box office, and the critical hype , while strong, seems unlikely to sustain it for long in the onslaught of so many other films at the end of the year. I think it will mirror another great film that hid similar reviews and expectations but did no business. In 1983, “The Right Stuff” arrived with a thud at the box office. Oscar Nominations gave it a slight boost during awards season, but in the long run, it was passed by too often by too many people. I see the same pattern emerging here. I hope I am wrong and some holiday time results in more people seeing this worthy remake of a great musical.