My Mini Review of this Must See West Side Story

This is my mini review and reflection of the latest iteration of West Side Story, brought to us by two masters of our time, director Stephen Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner. Let me say right off the bat, this is a must see film. Purists and critics need to get in line. This version brought me into the world of these beloved characters and kept me there throughout, except for the two mandatory bathroom breaks brought about by the running time of over two and a half hours. Between the Bernstein score and Sondheim lyrics and the fleshed out story and characters created by Spielberg and Kushner, it is pure genius.

Many are mistaken, calling the West Side Story and the original Romeo and Juliet, a love story. They are tragedies, not love stories. The ancients knew that if love leads to tragedy, if it is forbidden, if it leads to deception and death, it is no longer a story about love. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for me, a romantic, who like everyone else, am consumed by the hope of finding true love, waiting for me somewhere out there (happy to report I’ve found it). The story, fleshed out by Kushner, asks more questions than it answers. For instance, is the love in this story really love or a simple act of rebellion? Does love really conquer all? And if so, at what cost? Isn’t love rather that thing that flows naturally from peace and acceptance? In my humble experience with love, I have found it not the thing won in battle but the thing we must constantly fight to defend. True love has no barriers. It is unstoppable. Love happens only when all things are right with the universe, when the planets are aligned and everything is in harmony. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I think love is the absence of trouble. I’m not saying it is easy to accomplish. But the only obstacle to real love, is our own ego. So in this sense, love is the product of enlightenment. The theme is so deep, that love is life. But if death is human kind’s inevitable fate, then Is love eternal or does it die with us? When is someday? Will it ever come? Or must it remain forever just out of reach? This is a story about our relentless, irrational longing for the impossible. It is about the failure of the American Dream.

Tony Kushner’s (Angels in America) screenplay fleshes out the backstories that drive the characters toward their ultimate demise. I thought the character of Tony and his backstory supports his hidden rage and is an excellent addition to the story. Ansel Algort’s singing was sublime. He was reserved, trying to remain cool, until it was no longer possible for him to do so. Maria, played by Rachel Zegler was strong and believable. And Anybodys, played by Ezra Menas, was certainly the object of derision. Of course, they wouldn’t have called them a transgender back then; they had other names for those who were different. In a world of ignorance and hate, there is no room for different. One must conform, accept one’s place in society. This is another of the big themes running through this story. Anybodys is more than just a tomboy, to whose suffering we can all relate. Anybodys is anyone who dares to be different. Even Chino (Josh Andres) was a fully developed character, steaming with passion and big dreams. I enjoyed the gun play in Cool, the gun being the literal “rocket in your pocket.” I have to say I preferred the pent up rage being the rocket, as in the original movie. America made America look great even as it poked fun at it. I could go on about how spectacular and original the elements of this film were. Just go see for yourself and witness a marvel of story telling.

My chief complaint of this movie, if any, is that I did not believe for some reason, that these people could be trapped in such a beautiful, colorful and entrancing world Spielberg has created for them. That feeling of being trapped is essential to the story. But even the wrecking ball was beautiful in this director’s world view. I would have liked a more sympathetic backstory for Riff. Why is he so inextricably stuck in this world? We may have to wait another seventy years to find the answer to that question. He reminds me of a Dylann Roof or a Kyle Rittenhouse, rebels without a legitimate cause, the poor white kids who have nothing to offer yet feel entitled to everything, who simply are not going away, a simmering cancer that refuses to be cured.

Another big question that is raised by WSS raise but never answers, why do we need a tragedy to realize our mistakes? Why must human’s repeat the same mistakes year after year, millennia after millennia. Why must we always learn from failing? Why can’t we just learn from history? I watch my own children make the same mistakes I made and become frustrated, like my father before me and his father before him. This is the true tragedy of humanity. This version of WSS nails this and makes it personal. 

Another big question that occurs to me watching this WSS, are we really born into racism? Much popular culture teaches us that we are born innocent and taught to be racists as we get older. The message behind “stick to your own kind” is pretty clear: racism must be taught OUT of us. We have millions of years of evolution telling us that our herd is preferred. If we want to survive, then stick to our own kind. I’m not sure it really matters, whether we are born racists or have to be carefully taught. There is much pressure on us, from a variety of sources, with plenty of evolution to back it up, that pushes us to stick to our own kind and fear the other. Finally, in the end, Maria learns how to hate, something that came so easily to the Jets and the Sharks. But even then, in the end, despite her sickening loss, she provides the faint glimmer of hope for finding a new way together.

We think of hate as the absence or antithesis of love. Our passions, prejudices and hormones get all twisted up with love. So, is love then just a feeling response or is it the result of some deeper connection, built over time? How do we know when the connection we feel is real? Is love a choice, a decision? Are we fated in love, ordained by God? What does it mean to fall in love? Is it something beyond our control or is it entirely within our control? WSS presents love as an alliance, a commitment to remain loyal despite the risks and dangers involved. But it also says love is the inevitable force that holds the universe together, despite all the forces of hate trying to tear it apart. 

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