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"West Side Story" Review

 It's long been thought that Steven Spielberg has wanted to make a musical as shown by the dance hall scene in his first flop, 1941, and the opening credits to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so it wasn't a surprise that he finally got around to it nearly a half-century into his legendary career. What was surprising was his choice to remake 1961's West Side Story, the winner of 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Why not make an original musical or adapt a popular show like Hamilton or The Book of Mormon?

While some aspects of the project were reasonable like having a more ethnically accurate (i.e. Puerto Rican actors for the Sharks et al) and younger cast members who could actually sing, concerns began to rise as Spielberg started making woke noises about the project like refusing to subtitle Spanish dialog because he didn't want to "give English power over Spanish." (More on this later.) Such woke virtue-signaling - like all those Disney movies which hype how they'll have gay characters because that's what a family-friendly company focuses on - is so commonplace it hardly registers as Hollyweird panders to itself as to how stunning and brave it is in rejecting the values of those squares, the deplorable rubes who buy the tickets in the Flyover. 

Except in this case it backfired and the movie flopped. Hard. So, of course, the Academy rushed to give Big Steve's Folly seven nominations including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Supporting Actress which is very on brand because "Woke Side Story" is a miserable toxic exercise in cultural vandalism which is appalling and depressing. 

Little time needs to be spent recapping the story because it mostly follows the same beats of the 1957 musical's retelling of Romeo and Juliet and subsequent film. In New York City's Upper West Side, in the area which will become Lincoln Center, rival gangs the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (white guys) squabble for control of their disappearing turf. (Since they're not gangsters slinging drugs or other rackets, what are they controlling?) Sister of the Sharks leader, Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) falls in love instantly with Tony (Ansel Elgort), former leader of the Jets whose trying to reform his gang ways. Conflict, rumbles, death and misery ensue for those crazy kids. You know the story.

 The troubles begin right off the top as Spielberg's screenwriter, the gay Jewish Marxist Tony Kushner, has decided that the racial subtext of the source material needed to be elevated to TEXT text and by repeatedly stopping the story to sledgehammer the audience with reminders that white people are terrible xenophobic racists and Puerto Ricans are marginalized oppressed immigrants (even though PR is a US territory and they are American citizens), a toxic fog of racialist division hovers over everything, killing all joy in the story.

 It's not even a brilliant insight. People have been dividing into opposing teams and oppressing, enslaving and killing each other ever since there were enough people to merit making up team jerseys. News flash, Steve and Tony, but white Italian families were hating each other in 1597 according to William Shakespeare, so if you thought audiences in the early-21st Century needed to be alerted to ethnic tensions, you need to get out more. (For crying out loud, Belfast is about tribal warfare and that's the whitest of white people over in Bonoslovakia.)

 It's hard to overstate just how misguided this approach was for this project. Making any musical in these times is a heavy lift and remaking one dating from the Eisenhower-era where those who remember it are filing for Social Security is more of a reach. No one but the most successful filmmaker in American history could've gotten backing for a $100 million remake of a classic. So why choose to remake it into a wokescold lecture instead of just opening it up to a Spielbergian extravaganza of visually exhilarating cinema?

It was nearly impossible to appreciate the musical numbers because I was reeling from the sucker punches. The heavy fog of divisive agitprop weighed down everything, distracting from what should've been joyous and energetic. 

I love musicals, but have always thought West Side Story to be a tad overrated. I've seen it on stage and own the original movie, but it's been so long since seeing it that I didn't realize that Spielberg and Kushner had taken some seriously misguided liberties with the structure like taking "Somewhere" away from Tony and Maria and giving it to the newly-created character of Valentina (Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original), a revamp of the Doc character who owns the drugstore. That song is poignant because it's the doomed lovers wishing for an escape form the dire situation they're trapped in, so why take it away? 

Also, by moving "I Feel Pretty" back to its original location in the stage show from where it was in the movie, it immediately follows the shocking rumble, depriving the deaths of their power and having them overshadow the naive tune. In stage productions, there's an intermission between the rumble and the song, thus why it was moved ahead of the rumble in the original film. Spielberg and Kushner have concocted an explanation for their doing so, but it doesn't work. 

Another woke backfire was Spielberg's choice to not subtitle the Spanish. His woke white man sneer towards the audience was supposedly meant to empower those he patronizes, but in practice he has robbed half of the cast of their voices as he walls off their words and feelings from the gringos. (When the film showed in non-English-speaking countries, did they not subtitle the Spanish for French or Italian viewers or did they only subtitle the Spanish to give it power over English.) I wanted to know what they were saying; why didn't Steven trust me to know?

And in a genuflection to the radical gender identity politics which rules liberal culture now the character of Anybodys, who was always portrayed as a tomboy who wanted to run with the Jets, has been recoded as explicitly transgender and is played by a "non-binary" actress (read: non-girly lesbian who wants to be a unicorn), Iris Menas, because in 1957 when Leave It To Beaver was airing, a bunch of white racist street thugs would totally allow a non-extremely heterosexual person to hang around with them unmurdered. 

It's all a shame because there are some sporadic moments where Spielberg delivers what we'd expect from a Spielberg musical. Sure, he's aping Robert Wise's direction and occasionally quoting Jerome Robbin's choreography, but modern camera tech and VFX magic allow for a more realistic grounding for the numbers, but it's all for naught because he and Kushner had lecturing atop their agendas. 

While I found Elgort too bland, Zegler is adorable with what little the script gives her and Ariana DeBose is rightfully favored to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Anita as she's fiery and flashy. (Why Moreno, who looks amazing at 88 years old here, wasn't nominated for her turn is another shame on Oscar.) The cinematography by Spielberg's cinematographer wingman of three decades, Janusz Kamiński, brings his signature silvery desaturated style here and it's a bit of a bad fit especially when there is so much lens flare it looks like a J.J. Abrams movie.

 Ultimately, what ruins Woke Side Story is the same thing which is killing popular culture and making the Oscars a joke with plummeting ratings: woke liberalism. Liberalism destroys everything it touches. Everything. The brilliant Twitter personality Iowahawk tweeted in 2015, "1. Identify a respected institution. 2. Kill it. 3. Gut it. 4. Wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect." This sums up the mission of Spielberg and Kushner here. To scratch some wealthy liberal elite itch, they hijack an American classic and burn $100 million of a studio's money to turn it into a hateful unhappy experience. 

The sadddest irony of Spielberg's descent into late-life self-loathing or antipathy towards the audience is that he garnered that net work of $3.7 BILLION by cranking out timeless blockbusters which unified audiences in the joy of the movie. Jaws, E.T., Raiders, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and so many more brought us together and trading on those decades of history, Spielberg chose to use the power of an American musical and the movies to attack the audience for not living up to the radical Leftism of his fellow elites who own multiple mansions and private jets. 

Ironically, earlier in 2021 was another musical flop based on Hispanic/Afro-Cuban groups in upper-Manhattan, In The Heights, adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda's (he also did Hamilton) Tony-winning stage hit. I thought it was OK (score: 6/10) and appreciated the joyous magical realism of the production, but was worn down by Miranda's showoff rap songs which are like the worst of Eminem's excesses when he just bombards the listener like an auctioneer, trying to impress us with how many words he can spit per bar. But what it did was showcase oh-so-desired diversity without needing to punish whites for being white. Hollyweird has mistaken increasing representation as requiring maximizing retribution and resentment towards those who came before as collective guilt is assigned as part of the price of admission. While the movie didn't, the marketing hype leaned into that grievance-mongering and they wonder why these movies flopped?

Score: 3/10. Skip it. Watch the original.


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