West Side Story: Spielberg wins his bet [critique]

What interest was there in retouching this staple of the Hollywood musical? Without betraying anything, Spielberg reclaims the monument. Obviously fascinating.

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 has become the master’s staunchest ally. The light with its very identifiable horizontal reflections which can in turn dazzle or guide the gaze, the predominance of orange and blue hues, scent a world in ruins or threatened with destruction. Spielberg’s films are deliberately placed on the edge of an abyss. Hence this original misunderstanding, long repaired, which would see Spielberg as an entertainer for toddlers. It has become quite the opposite. His meeting with Kaminski for Schindler’s List in 1993 undoubtedly marks a stage and attests, if not of a change, of an affirmation. Everything about him is serious, shrouded in nameless sadness. The cinema is seen as a game of shadows where the massacres are often kept at bay by the magic that the staging allows. It suffices, for example, to review Munich to measure the difference that there may be between an inspired staging (each sequence imposes its own rhythm) and a less so. In the end, there will always remain this impression that Spielbergian art is entirely housed in this formidable capacity to reconfigure everything, reinterpret everything, including horror (cf. He also paid the price for this when he left the controversial film. Schindler’s List). Spielberg is in this an iconoclast.

10 things to know about the West Side Story of 1961

This rereading of West Side Story (the press service struggles like hell to avoid the term “remake”) is perhaps the best example. Who besides an unconscious laborer could take over the work of Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins from 1961? Spielberg of course. The filmmaker does not bow down to any idol, possibly rewriting history or intending to perpetuate it. It was already the case of War of the Worlds, his other remake (sorry!). The result here is very personal and not at all a Christmas fantasy. It is indeed the chaos that Spielberg films, that is to say the perpetual confrontation of the sans-ranks, here embodied by two rival bands but coming from the same world (a working-class district of New York in the process of gentrification). The elites are surely rubbing their hands in this fratricidal war. These only exist through its representatives (a buffooning police led by a sadistic leader). All these excluded from an American dream cracked everywhere (the plot takes place in 1957 when the original comedy was premiered on Broadway) are fighting among themselves to better self-destruct. It is the staging that expresses this duality in an already “classic” shot. The shadows cast by the Jets and the Sharks blend like specters on the ground, to the point of merging. The image of naive expressiveness stands out to become a reference.

Steven Spielberg drinks glasses at the end of West Side Story shooting

Of West Side Story, we are mainly talking about the libretto by Arthur Laurents, the screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (who died on November 26) and the music by 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 sung and danced sequences, however inspired they may be, do not stand out from the rest. Nothing is particularly salient in this company and certainly not the two lovebirds – the Romeo and Juliet of the West Side – embodied by rather quaint performers with Disney Channel profiles (the Baby Driver Ansel Elgort and the smooth Rachel Zegler) S ‘someone had to stand out, that would be the Mike Faist revelation. Nervous and dry, he makes Riff, the leader of the Jets, a flayed alive, condemned in advance. Nothing salient then – which is far from being a defect! -, everything is observed by an omniscient camera but never overhanging. As in an old-fashioned B-series that the film is not yet, it is a small territory that the story walks: a street corner, a grocery store, a shed, a balcony … The scenario of Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln…), is solid and does not need to push certain knobs to the maximum to reveal the modernity of the subject, even the perfect synchronicity (racism, the central place of women, the struggle of the working classes …) of Steven Spielberg, iconoclast and woke!

Behind the Scenes of West Side Story Musical Numbers

Janusz Kaminski, him, covers this small world with a halo which is ultimately not very mysterious in appearance. Everything is clear, nothing is concealed. It does not prevent this more West Side Story advance, the more the night drags on. Spielberg has 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 makes it possible to hold the world more or less upright. Steven Spielberg autographed this West Side Story to his father.

By Steven Spielberg. With: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist … 2h36. Released on December 8.

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