The eye of Steven Spielberg on the rubble ofUpper West Side of the late fifties welcomes us in the form of a long and dizzying tracking shot, among the most amazing film moments of the year. A prodigious one declaration of intent by the American author, who in West Side Story, a remake of the 1961 masterpiece by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, allows himself the luxury of awakening the ghosts of old Hollywood in ruins to take them to dance on the streets of New York. It is the best gift of this cinematic year in which you are musical many have been seen (In The Heights; Tick, Tick… Boom!), but also the nostalgic meditation of an author who had a long love affair with this classic style: West Side Story, covered in this review, is above all one look back, a melancholy reflection on a past that tends towards the modernity of the present.
A past to be rewritten
The classic aspirations were already the basis of the Robbins musical, created for Broadway together with Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents And Stephen Sondheim (who edited the music, libretto and lyrics respectively of the original show). The story is that of the impossible love between the Pole Tony and the Puerto Rican Maria, two souls united in a world at war: Romeo and Juliet among the buildings of the West Side of Manhattan. The protagonists and sociological horizons change – instead of the Montagues and the Capulets there are the American gangs Jets and Puerto Ricans Sharks – but the gist is always that diptych love Hate of which the Bardo spoke: a tragedy of explosive passions where is it romance rhymes with violence, a terrible essay onimpossibility of a sterile peace, not fought, which has value now as it did in 1957 on Broadway and, before that, on the stages of Elizabethan London.
A speech of burning cultural relevance, which the famous adaptation (10 Academy Awards, including best film) by Robbins and Wise faced with a sense of rhythm and memorable show, but also in the light of aethical ambivalence definitely daughter of his time. In the judgmental eyes of today’s viewer, the West side story original looks like a movie beautiful but aged, a story about the tragedy of racism which resorts to blackface and dramatizes the America of false-integration without artistically asking those directly involved. A paradoxical classic, progressive and dated at the same time: hence the need to bring back to the screen West side story in a version 2.0, modern and sparkling, respectful of today’s sensibility.
Politically correct, it has been said, but cinema does not live on watertight compartments, and the evolution of the artistic medium travels hand in hand with that of its audience. It is not a praise to a obtuse revisionismbut a simple consideration of how stories change with their listeners. It is therefore right to celebrate the musical spectacularity of the original film. Equally right, according to this writer, refresh, breaking through the limits of the “untouchable classic” and making it something more current and, why not, ethically resonant.
That you are at the head of this mission Spielberg, American author par excellence, is a sign of an artistic operation beyond the simple reinterpretation. His West side story it is first of all a passion project, a dream in the form of a musical chased for an entire career and that Spielberg realizes by now in his seventies, ready as never to remodeling an antique. Inside he summarizes his humanistic, all-encompassing and very American way of conceiving cinema and the world, from the parable on the fear of the “different” de The Bridge of Spies to the playful and post-modern revisionism of Ready Player One, from the stunts of Indiana Jones to the historical-fictional poeticism of Schindler’s List. It is too early to call it a will, but in West Side Story there is undoubtedly the eye of an artist turned back towards his own artistic and family background – the final dedication of the film is “to Dad”, “a papa”.
Spielberg’s is a vision that goes together with the original film parallel and perpendicular. Where Wise and Robbins looked for the stylization of their present, Spielberg points to a vibrant reinvention of the past. To the Upper West Side theatrical of ’61 he prefers a chaotic and evolving one, divided among the songs of its inhabitants and the old destroyed buildings on which the new New York must be built – just as it really did with the gentrification of the 1950s and 1960s. With the help of a cast fits perfectly – primarily Rachel Zegler like Maria, but also the much talked about Ansel Elgort in the role of Tony – we would like to say in this review that his West side story throws himself in the middle of the frenzied melee of street dances, with a warm and tangible sense of belonging to the city. Its protagonists are not mere narrative figures, but gods New Yorkers in flesh and blood, current residents who involve the neighborhood when they go down the street to dance and live their tragic dimension of social non-belonging. Through their dances and their faces, captured in sparkling close-ups, Spielberg tells of a historical and filmic past in ruins, which agitates to stay afloat and resist the future: one symphony of ghosts that come back to life with the gaudy color of the trusted Janusz Kamiński and le impetuous notes by Bernstein.
The musical revisited
Inside the original model of the classic American musical Spielberg fits in his own way, adjusting and correcting with a sensitivity that is also that of the classic audience – the same one who has remained faithful to the director throughout his very long career. Spielberg stubbornly adheres to this personal feeling, even when sentimentality prevails and the reinterpretation becomes counterproductive – as for the new positioning of the famous Somewhere, which dampens an important moment of the story.
The musical, in this capacity popular And modernized, becomes the rereading of a wonderfully anachronistic imagery, which with the language of extreme fiction addresses thecharm of the old models, as it did a few years ago La La Land with Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy. But West Side Story goes further than Chazelle’s film, because Spielberg does not limit himself to dialogue with the present: he tells it, speaking of today’s cultural conflicts, from the contradictions of their own cinema and the US film industry, the immortal power of the Hollywood style and the need to review it, reassess it, propose it again.
The consideration at the end of the review is that West side story he lives everything in this constant tension between old and new, within which Spielberg exhumes the Hollywood that he himself helped to restructure. His is a cinematic exercise that looks to the past but speaks to present tense, of a rigor perhaps too confusing for today’s public. One authorial whim that only a sanctified director like Spielberg could afford, but a whim that has the breath of a renewed genre, of an entire cinematographic era, of a classicism that dies and is reborn in the time of a dance and a song.
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