Spielberg’s West Side Story Isn’t What You’ve Heard – by Anonymous
Steven Spielberg has recently released a new version of West Side Story, as many people have doubtless heard, and many have feared. I confess, I worried that this remake would be a travesty against the original, as so many are. The words “Music Man remake” are nigh unto profanity in my family for how terrible that remake was. So it was with trepidation that my family waited for the movie to be released.
The first of us to see it was one of my brothers, who was so enamored of the original as a child that he almost had every line memorized. (No one ever said we were normal). If any of us would hate this remake, he would be the one. He didn’t hate it. To our surprise, he declared it the definitive movie version. This was a surprise to all of us.
The readers of this blog will doubtless have also heard how “woke” this remake is. After all, it cast native Spanish speakers as Puerto Ricans (though many were not Puerto Ricans themselves, like Ziegler, who is half-white and half-Cuban and plays Maria), and because Spielberg made some rather odd remarks about choosing not to subtitle the Spanish segments of the movie. I honestly find the wording of his comments rather stupid, though I do not entirely disagree with the decision not to subtitle the Spanish. More on that later.
I have now read multiple articles, as well as the comments (if Oedipus Rex took place today, it wouldn’t be the guilt that made him gouge out his eyes, it would be reading the comments), and one thing is obvious: the people hating on the movie didn’t actually watch it. They heard that they actually cast Hispanics as Hispanics, and they heard that there were no subtitles, and bam! “IT’S WOKE AND STUPID!” Perhaps the articles should have had trigger warnings for the readers’ sensitive feelings?
So, I will start with the point of the lack of subtitles. I watched the movie with my family and a friend. Only two of us understand any Spanish. I won’t call either of us fluent, but I have taken Spanish proficiency tests, and my listening comprehension was rated “Limited Professional”. So I understood most of the Spanish sections. The other one who knows some Spanish understood about the same amount as me. The non-Spanish speakers left the movie considering it better than the original. In fact, we all said that it was better. The lack of complete comprehension did not detract from the movie. In fact, it placed the viewer in the position of observer. The viewer found that he did not have all the information, and perhaps didn’t understand everything. Rather like real-life, that. In real-life we often find ourselves unable to understand others due to lack of knowledge, so this is hardly the worst thing in a movie. And even without understanding every word, the actors conveyed the information with their actions quite well. Chino calling Bernardo an idiot for getting involved in gang warfare while the other Sharks mourn him was still completely understandable to the non-Spanish speakers, despite their not knowing the exact words, though “Bernardo” and “estupido” were enough to get that point across.
Now, the strange complaint (seriously, casting Hispanics as Hispanics is not woke [I think it was more Spielberg’s insistence on only casting LatinX. That final x was the issue-SAH]) about woke casting. At least one no-name internet pundit says there is no way that Ziegler has the grace of Natalie Wood. Frankly, I disagree. Ziegler plays the role flawlessly, and convincingly. And, she plays the character of a Puerto Rican girl freshly arrived in America more convincingly. And, while I do not intend to slight Natalie Wood, Ziegler is more capable in her role, performing her own singing rather than being dubbed over in post-production. The same goes for Tony, by the way. Tony’s actor does his own singing in this movie, and does it extremely well. And this Tony can dance. As a tangent, Tony and Maria’s first dance in this version was remarkable to me, as the movement and footwork was strongly reminiscent of a knife fight, which was appropriate foreshadowing for what that dance led to.
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’d like to talk about the movie itself rather than rail against snowflakes who scream at the thought of Hispanic actors and no subtitles. This might be the blog post that kills the readership of the blog, but I stand by it, and if you don’t like it, well, I don’t have plans to make any more posts about it. [I don’t think it will kill the readership of the blog. They know they can throw rotten fruit at any given guest post. – SAH]
The original West Side Story movie really was more of a stage production on screen. It was quite well done, and I still enjoy it, but the way it was shot and acted is closer to the stage than the screen. The new West Side Story was adapted to fit the screen better, and also took some great pains to create a more complete story. The old West Side Story was shot in the emptied slums that were about to be demolished to make way for Lincoln Center. The new one is set in those same slums, but all around is destruction and demolition. The Jets are no longer cast as the good guys or protagonists as they were in the original. The new Jets are cast as what they were always supposed to be: juvenile delinquents, hoodlums, thugs, gangbangers, and victims of their parents’ abusive behavior. Gone is the attractive gymnast Riff of the original, replaced with a psychopathic thug. The Tony of the original, who we are told “has a rap sheet bigger than the whole West SIde” yet doesn’t seem to have ever seen the rougher side of life, is replaced with a young boy who is barely out of prison, on parole for nearly beating one of the Egyptian Kings to death in a street brawl. He no longer seems like a pretty boy who’s never broken a rule yet supposedly has an endless list of crimes to his name. He now seems like a young boy who discovered what he really was, and is terrified of the terrible things he has done, and is afraid he will lose control again. This Tony has demons, and they haunt him through every scene. This Tony spends every scene yearning for the light, while grappling with his own darkness. I liked this Tony.
Maria is mostly the same character, though she is definitely the young girl she is supposed to be. Her behavior is much more like the 18 year old she is supposed to be in both original and remake. Ziegler plays her role quite well, and she has a voice. I enjoyed every note of her singing.
Chino was the surprise role of this movie. The Chino of the old movie is, frankly, forgettable. He doesn’t even make an appearance until the 2nd Act in which he famously tells Maria “HE KILLED YOUR BROTHER!” This Chino surprised me. He makes an appearance in the opening scene in which he shouts at the Jets after they stole the sign from the store where he works as a bagboy. That scene alone sets the stage well for the movie. The stolen sign declared in Spanish that the store sold groceries, while the sign underneath was faded and bore a four-leaf clover, representing the changing human geography of the slums of the West Side. All at once, you see that this is a story of the old-timers versus the newcomers, with the Jets, as Lieutenant Schrank puts it as “the last of the Can’t Make It Caucasians”. He details the other groups that had come through those slums, and how those groups worked hard and rose out of the slums, and now live in nice apartments and have nice daughters the Jets would love to date, but the Jets don’t want to do the hard work to get out of the slums. My apologies for digressing. Chino, in this movie, is present from the beginning, and he is not a Shark. He is a long time friend of Bernardo’s, and wants to join the Sharks, but Bernardo has other plans for him. Chino is going to night school to learn accounting (and adding-machine repair) and he has a future. He is no tough, he is a hardworking man that Bernardo sees bringing his sister out of poverty and giving her a stable household with a steady income. But Chino looks at Bernardo, this young tough boxer who protects their community against the depredations of hoodlums, and wants to be tough like him and join the Sharks. The Chino of the original was little more than a set piece. This Chino is a man. He has goals, dreams, ambitions, and he changes through the story, until he makes the fateful decision to shoot a man in the back to avenge his dead friend, and realizes his mistake when he sees the woman he hoped to marry sobbing over the corpse of her love.
Elaborating on my previous comment about old-timers versus newcomers, this version of West Side Story is not so much a story about the evils of racism, but the evils of tribalism, factionalism, and identitarianism. I submit that this movie is not only not woke, it is anti-woke. The movie featured multiple decision points where if anyone could have seen past their tribe, they would have realized they were not enemies, and they could have avoided the tragedy of three homicides in a single day.
One small but significant change is this version is less anti-police than the original. The original we hear Lieutenant Schrank complain that the Puerto Ricans have made a bad neighborhood worse, and he even attempts to recruit the Jets as his personal enforcer squad and offers their help if they get in a rough spot. The new version of Lieutenant Schrank is against the violence and disorder the gangs bring to the street. And this Sergeant Krupke is tired of the Jets and past his prime, rather than the old version who is little more than a tough with a badge.
One more character surprised me in this version. In this version, Doc’s Druggist is no longer run by Doc, but by his widow, a Puerto Rican woman named Valentina, played by Rita Moreno, who was Anita in the original. Say what you want, but that casting choice was perfect, and her rendition of Somewhere was heartbreaking, especially as she gazes at a picture of herself and Doc together in front of their store. Photoshop does have some good uses. She plays the only responsible adult in the life of the Jets and other hoodlums, trying to redeem those she can, and even giving Riff a chance, despite him having stolen from her store since he was six years old.
Now, a few other interesting notes. Several songs change places in this version of the movie. Where the stage production has Officer Krupke in the second act, and Cool in the first, the original reversed that order, and the remake places both of them in the first act. Officer Krupke takes place as the hoodlums are being questioned about the Rumble prior to the fight, and ends with them trashing the station when the cops foolishly leave them alone to chase after another kid who assaulted one of their number. And Cool in this version changed drastically, and for the better. This version of Cool consists of Tony attempting to take away Riff’s gun, which he purchased from a bartender who was an acquaintance of his criminal father, as Tony attempts to tell the Jets that they shouldn’t be warring over turf anymore, and that a gun (a S&W Model 10 in .38 Special the dealer tells them) will only get them into trouble. He fails in his attempt at disarming the Jets, and the final “pow” of the song is delivered by Riff, not singing, but telling Tony that he is no longer a Jet, and nothing will keep Riff from the Rumble.
There is one and only one concession to wokeness in the movie. The character of Anybodys is no longer an extreme tomboy, and is now played as Trans. It’s not loudly shouted, nor played up. The character is just androgynous, and says they’re a boy, while the Jets says they’re a girl.
Perhaps I have done a poor job convincing you, but I will leave my final suggestion: watch the movie, and actually watch it with your eyes and not with the commentary from glib pundits who are as hair-trigger and sensitive as any wokie I’ve ever met. Just watch the movie. You will enjoy it.