Damp Mask Movie: Spielberg’s West Side Story
You are asking yourselves: what does she mean by “damp mask”? All I can say about it is that throughout this entire movie, I was weeping.
Yeah, silly boomer, overwhelmed by the film of a musical that debuted on Broadway in 1957. I will not reveal how old I was in 1957 but suffice to say I was alive. Also it is sufficient to reveal that West Side Story, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and adaptation (book) by Arthur Laurents—or should I say original book/script by William Shakespeare—is one of my favorite musicals of all time. When I read that Steven Spielberg was remaking the 1961 Richard Wise film of the Broadway mega-hit, I felt the usual skepticism.
Skepticism is the best state of mind to have when walking into a movie theater. It guarantees, in most cases, that I am going to love the movie. Which in this case, I did.
Our little indie movie theater, The Pix in Albany, Oregon, somehow manages to get first run films and stay alive. At the opening of the biggest show on earth, the COVID pandemic, the owners closed the Pix’s doors like all their giant big brother-competitors throughout the nation. But they were very busy inside. They removed all the seats, re-covered the flooring, and reinstalled the seats with wide aisles and attention to social distance. On the MLK holiday, the small theater was half full. The audience was roughly 80% gray-heads.
Let me preface my review with revealing that I have a deeply emotional relationship with music. So does the husband, even though his skepticism about most things in general requires that he balk when I suggest movie-watching, but his emotional attachment to music equals mine.
In the opening scenes, listening to Bernstein’s haunting rendering of whistled gang signaling, the tears started. There, I said it. Admission to unreasonable sobbiness.
Let me talk about Leonard Bernstein for a bit and relate that no matter how snappy, quick, and delightful Sondheim’s lyrics are in all his compositions, Bernstein’s score elevates them to the next realm. Mixing tempos, intervals, genres and keys, Leonard Bernstein opened creative doors for the next composers to emerge and helped to erase the future of ballad-laden musicals from composers like Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song), Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Gigi) and Meredith Wilson (The Music Man, The Unsinkable Molly Brown—the talented Wilson composed music and lyrics but also the book).
Therefore when Spielberg’s West Side Story opens with the Prologue ballet, Bernstein’s music begs to dance. Justin Peck’s robust, graceful choreography equals that of Jerome Robbins’ in the 1961 film—my skepticism about that point vanished in seconds. In short order we are introduced to mega-performer Rita Moreno in the innovative rewritten role as “Doc”’s wife, who owns and manages the Jets’ hideaway drug store. (Yes, she portrayed Anita in the 1961 film). Then we are treated to Ansel Elgort’s lyric tenor as he sings “Something’s Coming” (a favorite of mine with its jazzy, soaring intervals and beats.) I never heard of Elgort before this—true of me for many of the new film’s cast—but the guy can sing. Interspersed with the delight of energetic ensemble dancing, are the ballads of the principles. Rachael Zegler, who I had to look up after I saw she was cast and I was asking my ignorant self is she Latinx? and yes by God she is, with her clear soprano and flawless high notes, is needed relief to breathy-girl pop singers. (Lady Gaga being a welcome exception to the breathy-girl music phase.) Besides she can act, too.
The roles of Bernardo and Riff are beautifully fleshed out (check out David Alvarez as Bernardo). And Ariana Debose, singer and dancer with Broadway chops and nominated for a Golden Globe for this role, is sublime as the earthy, America-loving Anita.
Every iteration of musicals and plays over their lifetimes become the victims of editing, some good and some bad. Spielberg and his writers—principally Tony Kushner—made their expected adjustments. Nothing made me groan or wince. The musical’s energy arises from its score and story, and those scaffolds are brilliantly maintained in this newest version.
To revel in Bernstein’s unparalleled compositions, listen to all nine movements of his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story suite, and dare yourself not to get up and dance to the music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srb2EyvTSGw
Do Look Up
It was late. After a few glasses of wine with the husband, I opened the Netflix app on my LG TV and began to browse for something new to watch.
I don’t know how it happened. I blame the digital acid trip that is technology today. Somehow my little remote chose to open “Don’t Look Up”, the tattered-by-critics film from Adam McKay about, on the surface anyway, two scientists accused of crying wolf when the female PhD candidate (the incomparable Jennifer Lawrence) locates a comet headed straight for earth, ground zero being in 6 months.
I had been on the virtual fence about seeing this one, after reading a handful of respectable reviews. But I decided to give it a try, as it was late, I didn’t really feel like browsing, and I was curious.
First I think despite which genre experts would like to assign to this movie, I vote for horror. My tension level reached 8.0 on the Richter scale in the first 15 minutes. It pressed all my buttons in these minutes: disrespect for science, government in the chains of commerce, and white male privilege. Criticism of this wild dystopic movie focussed on its saturation of heavy hitting actors: Meryl Streep’s impersonation of Donald Trump, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry’s rendering of Fox News reprobates, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s bumbling, helpless, sheepskin-grasping astrophysicist.
The real star of this film, the veteran performer most deserving of an Oskar nod for best supporting actor, is Mark Rylance as the Elon Musk/Steve Jobs/obscenely rich elder Peter Isher, creator of BASH, a cellular phone monolithic corporation, the source of cancer-like infiltrations into our lives. (sound familiar?)
What critics of this film miss, as seen from my jaded viewpoint, is the subtle maneuvering of bias. Critics lost in salivating over top tier performers chewing through stereotypic scenes ignore the belittling, disenfranchising treatment of the young female PhD candidate for whom the comet is named—Dibiasky—and the Black scientist and NASA administration-leader Dr. Oglethorpe (the skillful Rob Morgan). One woman and one Negro (apologies for the word, but I want to accurately express my distress about this theme) cannot possibly conquer not only media palaces and political circuses, but the millions of Internet minions glued to their phones.
The film is uncomfortable, breathless, and brilliant.
And there is (spoiler!) no happy ending. No roses and kisses, no Wall Street parade, no tear-jerking reunions.
Because I’m still obsessed with this film the morning after, I am giving it four Jill stars out of five, downgrade owing to both my discomfort level and my ambivalent respect for Leonardo DiCaprio.