“West Side Story” Film Review: Disappointing

I am a HUGE Leonard Bernstein fan (readers can see an earlier post https://thewomenofletters.com/2021/08/26/lenny-b-at-103-a-personal-reflection-on-leonard-bernstein/) so naturally, I love West Side Story. The vibrant, explosive music and percussive rhythms contrasting with touchingly lyrical melodies, all coupled with lyrics by a brilliant young Stephen Sondheim, make it musically unforgettable. Add to it the fact that it is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and you get one of the (arguably) best musicals ever written. The 1961 film by Robert Wise made quite an impression on me, though it has been years since I last saw it and I may not remember everything well. However, it has something that the remake lacks, which has a certain sparkle and energy to it that still lingers in my memory. The 2021 Spielberg version, which has its merits, is a disappointment overall. (SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen either the original or the remake.)

One of the admirable things that Spielberg has done is to make the new version more culturally sensitive and accurate. He reportedly consulted the Puerto Rican community to remedy the wrongdoings of the past (such as casting white actors like Natalie Wood instead of Puerto Ricans/Latinos). All the actors do their own singing and dancing. Spielberg even included a non-binary actor as Anybody’s. Perhaps the most enjoyable change was the inclusion of the legendary Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the original), in a role created for her that is significant to the story. The film also feels real, like it is indeed gritty, New York that is in our faces. The cast are phenomenally talented, young actors and actresses who are at the top of their game.

However, the primary problem lies in the fact that the film considers itself to be a film and not a musical. The original is very music-driven, whereas this remake is a drama with music. Therefore, it feels very heavy. Tony Kushner, I believe, was not the best choice for screen writer, as it feels like the film is Trying to Make a Statement, rather than draw us in with a beautifully-crafted, scored tragedy. There is a certain flatness and dullness, and Spielberg’s direction oddly lacks energy at times. We don’t always feel a sense of urgency that is required, given that the action takes place in a very short time span, and that the plot revolves around gangs and vengeance. Visually, the film looks dull and drab for the most part. Odd choices are made with camera angles, the problem usually being longshots that distance the viewer from the action (though the cinematography is beautiful). The overall result is that there is a certain coldness to the tone of the film.

I understand that the “West Side Story” remake is trying to be relevant and address sensitive cultural politics. Unfortunately, it loses sight of the fact that it is a musical, a medium that is meant to entertain.

Lenny B. at 103: A Personal Reflection on Leonard Bernstein

What can be said about the great Leonard Bernstein that hasn’t been said already? He was exuberant, obnoxious, a struggling gay man who was married to a devoted martyr of a wife with whom he had three children, a genius, a showoff, etc. What can be said that’s new is my own personal reflections and experiences with the music and works of Leonard Bernstein, whom I consider to be the greatest American composer. Yesterday, August 25, marked the 103rd anniversary of his birth, and I consider it only fitting that I pay tribute to “Lenny.”

I can’t remember exactly when it was that I encountered Bernstein’s music; it would be safe to say that it was when I first listened to and saw the musical “West Side Story” as a pre-teen, though chances are I would have seen him conducting on PBS on “Great Performances” as a child (one of the few programs my mother would actually encourage me to watch.) The haunting, lyrical melodies, the explosive Latin rhythms, the ability to go from tender to exuberant at the drop of a hat–it was also marvelous and moving, there was no other music like it.

Perhaps no piece exemplifies Leonard Bernstein better than the music to the operetta “Candide,” which I discovered in college and was just enthralled by. During my senior year, I took a class on American musical theater, and we had to choose a work that interested us and write a paper on it. Given that I was a classical musician, I was especially fascinated by this crossover work that was certainly much more complex and lush than a musical yet had catchy enough melodies that would linger in your head! I spent a lot of time listening to the album, reflecting on the profundity of the words, and developed a strong desire to read the play (which, shamefully, I still have not done) and see the work in person. Only many years later did I get to see “Candide” live in a wonderful university production, though I did see the televised production with Kristin Chenoweth.

When I moved to New York, it was inevitable that I would get to know more about the life and work of “Lenny,” as it was his city. During my first round of graduate school in my master’s program at Columbia University’s Teachers College, I took a class on the development of creativity with another leading figure in his field, Howard Gruber. We were required to write a paper on the creative processes of someone whom we chose. I chose Leonard Bernstein. I enjoyed reading his biographies, learning about his very complex personality, musicality, and personal life (by most accounts, Bernstein was really a gay man who married a woman, though he loved his wife very much). I found his life trajectory very fascinating, given his humble origins in Boston and not only his musical brilliance as a performer but also his ability to communicate to audiences and children. He had a bit of rabbi in him, educating others, and studying deeply, quite the scholar. It struck me that he was so uniquely American, a product of this culture in the best possible ways: Jewish, first-generation, artistic, intellectual, supporting black people and human rights and social justice. 

Not long after that class, there was some series on the works of Bernstein at Lincoln Center. I found out that his son Alexander was going to be there, and I had the chutzpah to take a copy of the paper I had written. I got to meet him after one talk, and Alexander was incredibly kind and gracious, and accepted the paper from that gushing 25-year-old who was a fan of his father. Much to my surprise, Alexander wrote me and praised my paper, and I was absolutely thrilled!

Over the years, I listened to more of Bernstein and both his own compositions as well as other pieces he conducted, even sung his work in a chorus. Yes, sometimes his conducting style was over-the-top and to put it mildly, expressive in a way that few other conductors were. He certainly had his detractors. But one need only to listen to his recordings of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 6 that starts slowly and then takes off like a windup doll, and the Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser with the NY Philharmonic from 1968 (a piece of music on my top 5 desert island choices) that is so beautifully phrased and expressive that it can move you to tears, or at least goosebumps. Just imagine that thick-featured, very handsome face breathing with the music as he moves like a ballet dancer on the podium, waving the baton as though it were an extension of his arm. And consider the irony of the most Jewish of men conducting the works of an anti-Semite who was loved by the biggest anti-Semite and demagogue who ever lived. That was Bernstein: making something his own, something so beautiful that it transcended hate.

A few years ago, his daughter Jamie narrated a concert that featured videos of his Young People’s Concerts with music from those concerts played live by the NY Philharmonic. It felt like a welcome re-introduction to Bernstein’s work and legacy, as I was not born when that program was shown on TV. What struck me was how accessible Bernstein was trying to make classical music, so that it became a part of a child’s education and not just something highbrow for wealthy, upper-class New Yorkers like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who was a big supporter of his). 

Bernstein always made music fun. He made it come alive with a tremendous sensual, erotic energy, full of highs and lows, just like the man himself. If memory serves me correctly, I remember reading a quote by his father that said, “How was I supposed to know that my son Leonard Bernstein was going to be the Leonard Bernstein?” There was never anyone quite like Leonard Bernstein, and there never will be. Happy Birthday, dear Lenny.