We live in desperate times when the salve for loud, formless kitsch is Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story—that is, kitsch with mise-en-scène. The second film revival of the beloved IP opens, perversely enough, by craning across the razed working-class slums of San Juan Hill in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Spielberg tracks up a sign that announces the institution that would replace those brownstones, clotheslines, stoops, and delis: the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Fifty years later, the premiere of the gritty reboot of West Side Story was held at the same Lincoln Center, in a tasteless dancing-on-the-graves-of-the-poor move whose obscenity was only one notch below the promotional Nomadland food baskets sent to film critics by Amazon-Disney-Searchlight. The sweeping, pretty crane shot sets the tone for the rest of Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Story, a malignant, air-sealed, pop-Greek tragedy whose ending cannot and will not change. Fate has cast its die, and the movie feels over even before it’s begun. We know Romeo and Juliet won’t fly their car off into the sky after the final sock-hop. When it comes to such moral and narrative certainty, in the words of Gaston from Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (a musical that has aged better than Story), “it’s a bore.”
My favorite genre is the movie musical; my least favorite, the musical-theater-kid movie. Both Spielberg’s Story and last year’s other corny pretender, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, have arrived as quaint, todos-juntos representatives of the latter brand. Bright, high-pitched, and would-be weird, they come from a time when we weren’t shaken by a global pandemic that wiped out millions of the bottom and made billions for the top. Miranda had the audacity to state in a promotional podcast for In the Heights that he wanted to “transcend” (“progress beyond”) West Side Story by not making “yet another gangster movie.” Good for him. Instead, with his La Land de La La, he’s made the first illegals musical. That’s how Latines have constantly existed in the eyes of Hollywood, going back to the LA success story of Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983). And that’s how they continue to exist, regardless of whether (as my friend Séverine Tate put it to me recently) we’re allowed in the store by smiling whites (West Side Story) or we’re told by lap-dog Latines not to touch the boss’s merch (In the Heights).
To direct, Miranda and his co-conspirator Quiara Alegría Hudes have brought on board Jon M. Chu, with his solid track record of deploying Style onto rainy Step Up streets and crazy rich Asian banquets. Chu’s stroke of marketing genius here is to swap out Chinese-Americans for Dominican-Americans as the test subjects for his Mickey Mousing freneticism. And the freneticism is the point: throughout In the Heights, he cuts, on every—single—beat—of a number. If the song has the five beats of a 3-2 clave rhythm, Chu will continuously cut five times to five storefront signs, whose fonts and history he doesn’t much care about. This results in a cut every three seconds. In theory, this would make the viewer feel like montage and music are perfectly harmonized with each other. In practice, multiplied across two hours and change, it’s a hectoring, static horrorshow that prevents the viewer from lingering within the lived-in interiors of any given bodega-club-alley-apartment. In the absence of open cinematic space, the space’s dimensions have been closed on us: Only (light-skinned) Latines Allowed.
Since I already experience the alienations of 2020s speed in its more unstable and interesting forms on TikTok and the Instagram stories of close friends, I endured the earnest garishness of the “No Me Diga” numbers by measuring them against two other takes on musical space in hair salons: the title song of Jacques Demy’s final film Trois places pour le 26 (1988), and Chantal Akerman’s “Meli Melo” number in Golden Eighties (1986). Despite the fact that West Side Heights people “look like me”—never mind that they don’t talk like any Puerto Rican or Dominican I’ve ever known—I feel much closer in spirit to these ’80s French shopgirls. Demy and Akerman guide the viewer—delicately, patiently, without condescension—through the everyday world of a hair salon transformed by dreams and melodrama. Neither of them cuts for the sake of cutting. Instead, I’m given time to look at the purple stairs that flow up and around a Lancôme perfume stand (Demy). I have room to peek into the eyes of every misandrist stylist that pops up in the camera’s path (Akerman). Waiting, inhales and exhales, awakening to the creases of an overworked face: all of this means little to Chu and his team, who are as terminally afraid of tableaux longer than three seconds as John Huston was of negative space. (One anomalous Heights number, randomly shot as a long take, feels as fake as any of the emotions on display in Iñnaritú’s Birdman Or.) Whereas Chu thinks you should feel every Latinx snip of the scissors, I’d much rather spend time with the grandmother with no lines who wears one of those Forever 21 tees where the studs spell “Bebe.” Looking at her, you get the sense that when she takes the uptown 1 home later that night, she will sing with more sotto voce soul than any of her cornball Broadway barbers.
“Cornball” is all I could think of when watching Spielberg’s Story. In fairness to Spielberg and his Tony (Ansel Elgort) and María (Rachel Zegler) they’re working against native plot problems—namely, two of the dullest leads in the annals of modern Broadway. They dance one “mambo” (it’s more a chaste hip sashay with some lovely finger-snaps), they fall in love, and they gradually amass a chain of exhaustingly bad decisions, each worse than the last, over the span of 24 hours. By the end, three guys are dead. As someone who hides whenever I hear friends complain about holes in the dumb plots of excellent movies (just pay attention to the wallpapers! the gestures of the actors!), I can’t look past the fact that the characterization that, in Shakespeare’s language, read as tragic naïveté is reduced, in West Side Story, to sheer stupidity. The plot from which Jerome Robbins’ ballets and Robert Wise’s shrieking colors served as delirious and attractive distraction is, here, front and center: Spielberg doesn’t even frame the full bodies of his dancers. When you scrub all traces of Robbins out (the one element that gave the Story its infrequent soul), and when you add some flashy lens-flares and a washed-out, burnt-summer darkness, you get the Spielberg Story.
As Tony, Ansel Yogurt, strikingly vanilla, either sing-speaks his feelings in a technically-on-pitch monotone, or else warbles with his Adam’s apple wavering, signifying virtuosity. Tony’s head is always flinch-cocking to the side, the actor staring off with empty concentration into a point in space only he is privy to. He stacks boxes for Rita Moreno as if stifled, listless, unsure (maybe he should join a gang?), and his affection for María—evidenced by how many times he screams her name to annoyed Puerto Rican neighbors—is detached, unerotic. As María, Rachel Zegler doesn’t have to strain her gorgeous straight-arrow voice as much as her middling Jet beloved. The film’s best moment is a musical interlude in which María pretends to wake up so that her brother Bernardo (the incredible David Alvarez, who has genuine screen shine) doesn’t find out that she was out with Tony. Steve McQueen ended his Lovers Rock (2020) with a similar scene (mom wakes up the party-girl so she can go to church), but he truncated it, whereas at least Spielberg allows Zegler to go through the full arc of this cute, curious charade: mussing up the bed, putting on a messy pink nightgown, removing her dress as if she were reverse Cinderella. Zegler does what she can with the role, and—her Oscars non-invitation aside—she has a career full of immense promise, as long as she can catch the interest of other smart directors not named Steven Spielberg, a PG-13 control-freak auteur who blushes when asked to handle the awkward horniness of adolescence.
It’s so obviously not the point of this big-ass interracial love story to question the Latina’s love, but one has to ask: him? Plus, what’s so wrong with Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), who miraculously nails the bashful, shy-guy act: uncloying, unsuspicious, all traces of sugar watered away? When Rivera’s Chino approaches Zegler’s María to take her out, he gets overwhelmed and retreats into a wonderful scared-hawk face, complete with hunched skull and a pout. At the gym and for most of the film, he walks as though his suit-jacket was still hooked to its wire hanger—so scrunched up you want to hug and set him right. When he finally gets into the swing of the mambo, an angel earns his wings. On top of creating a tragic Shark with miles of lovely, lived-in business, Rivera has the best line in the new film:
“You kill a gringo,” a Shark warns Chino, “the gringos kill you.”
Chino replies: “Sooner or later, the gringos kill everything.”
There’s an extravagant concentration of talented actors at work here, most of whom are “new” faces to the big screen: Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rivera, Iris Menas as Anybodys who floats through the film. But rarely has there been such a display of talent and lavish mise-en-scène for a scenario so vapid and hoary. Spielberg doesn’t add anything that Robert Wise, a workaday factory-man who would occasionally turn in an interesting product like The Haunting (1963) or Executive Suite (1954), didn’t already bring to the first film take of the musical. All Spielberg can do is advertise that he has the money to stamp his trademarked one-take signature onto every scene of Story. He and Kushner contort themselves to “right” the “wrongs” of the musical, but those “wrongs” aren’t really something worth “righting,” as the writer Carina del Valle Schorske recently pointed out:1
Any future engagement with West Side Story that actually deepens the material would have to abandon all loyalty to the show as written, the way Rosencratz and Gildenstern completely reimagines Hamlet. It’s an independent work of art that deconstructs the canonical play. I doubt the creators of West Side Story gave a single thought to “new narratives” that might emerge from their musical, let alone new Puerto Rican narratives. And it doesn’t seem like the power brokers of Broadway or Hollywood are really thirsting for them, otherwise the same material wouldn’t get recycled over and over.
By “new narratives,” I don’t take del Valle Schorske to mean narratives of a tiresome, representational ilk. Rather, I take her to mean form-obsessed ruptures, strong misreadings, mutations and degradations of an original text that don’t treat the plot beats like holy decrees written on a stone tablet. For a film that makes a big fuss over being a brother-and-sisterhood-of-man tract, there’s plenty of Jet pride in the Story, but exasperatingly little Shark. That’s by design. The Story was never imagined as a story about Puerto Rican pride. Puerto Ricans just sounded and looked sexier than Jews vs. Irish Catholics, the warring sides of the first draft, when it was called East Side Story. Nor is the Story one in which the creators were capable of imagining what teeming Shark life could feel like, for, as its late lyricist Stephen Sondheim famously declared, “I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even met a Puerto Rican.” (Sondheim ended up disliking most of the lyrics he had to write, anyway.) The cards had been stacked before DeBose and Zegler and Rivera were born. The Puerto Ricans of the new Story are gloriously self-hating in ways that aren’t rhymed by the whites. The Friar Lawrence role—before, a kindly Jewish storeowner named Doc—has now been gender- and race-flipped as Valentina, Doc’s widow (played by Rita Moreno, who is chained to this universe like Alec Guinness was to Star Wars). But this particular “righting a wrong” only creates more confusion and problems: now Rita Moreno inexplicably harbors the white Jets in her store, offering no shelter to her Puerto Rican boys. Then, in a scene of overblown and gratuitous violence, the Jets attempt to rape Anita. This never fails to grind the whole musical to a sleazy, pretentious, and dehumanizing halt. Afterward, Valentina doesn’t even kick the Jets out of the store; she just says “You dishonor yourselves,” as if they broke Old Man Jenkins’s window with a baseball. And in the end, when Chino finally shoots and kills Tony, Valentina astonishingly makes no effort to protect sweet Chino, whom Spielberg has now done too good of a job of fleshing out. At this point, it seems ludicrous that Valentina simply gives Chino up to the police without a fight. This is Latinidad? Even in the age of Lin-Manuel, they don’t read Chino his Miranda rights.
When, in the latter half of the twentieth century, did homage in musicals stop bearing the mark of dexterous originality (e.g., Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York , Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective , and Jacques Rivette’s Up, Down, Fragile ) and start simply regurgitating lessons from the past, slowed by viscous nostalgia for better times? Even the recent titles of these 21st-century musicals limit themselves to unremarkable single-word declamations: Chicago, Dreamgirls, Once, Nine, the toned-down Hairspray remake. You can easily argue why a musical like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) represented the epitome of cinema at its “purest”—that is, a non-pure, grab-bag synthesis of bits and pieces (opera, jazz-pop, puppet shows, the controlled movements of early Disney shorts) to create a beguiling new organism. Meanwhile, both of Miranda’s stage musicals and the Spielberg Story never transcend their origins, as a thin bleating of merengue and Ethel Merman (In the Heights) or Schoolhouse Rap (Hamilton), or else Hollywood’s glorification of the most perverse white fantasies, summed up by Melissa Lozada-Oliva: “is west side story just about a lonely Latina obsessed with a mediocre white boy bitch I could do that in my house.”
And then there are my personal punctums of revulsion. A key grandmother dies halfway through Heights, but the family’s response is a sniffly, contained affair. From personal memory, I can assure you no self-respecting, working Hispanic family (in my case, Honduran) would reserve themselves like that. Her death demands something more funereal, messier, some howls and punches and accusations from estranged family members brought irascibly together—followed by chilly brooding, country-mile-long stares, and passive-aggressive resentments. (Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems, one of the ten best films this country has ever produced, gets closer to what such an experience is like.) When they’re not repressing themselves, the Heights family speaks in condescending gringo Spanglish: “tu eres un workaholic,” plus the abuse of the term “sueñito”, which, like Elgort’s wearisome “María María María María María,” is said so many times your skull nearly splits. Hollywood screenwriters have yet to figure out either a passable cadence or a right balance of languages when it comes to US Spanish, and In the Heights can sound a lot like Dora the Explorer. It’s the same with the broken Spanglish that Kushner sprinkles like Tapatío chili-flakes across his Story screenplay. One Shark to a cop: “You’re never around when these hijo de putas [“ee-weh-puu-taa”] mess up our a-streets”, with an Italian backwards-hand-flick on the “puu.” A tell-tale irony: the makers clearly want their liberal audience to cluck disapprovingly every time one of the cornball white hoods, or even Anita, asks the Puerto Ricans to “speak English.” It’s ironic, because that’s exactly the condescending ask of Spielberg and Kushner on their all-Latine cast of Sharks: Spielberg doesn’t add subtitles to aid the Anglos, so instead all the Sharks, plus Anita and María, speak in a legible-to-all grade-school Spanish that looks and sounds just as ridiculous as the accented English.
When, in eighth grade, my teacher Ms. Miller showed West Side Story to our mostly working-class black and brown class, I was the only one who dared to defend the dancers. I got pooled in with the Shark “f*gs.” I thank Spielberg for unearthing this memory from my unconscious, which, I now realize, formed a lot of who I am today. I still love those dances. And I still hate everything that surrounds them. My point, to clarify, has never been, “In the Heights or West Side Story doesn’t capture my reality.” That will always be an inadequate and dull demand. My point, rather, is that the imaginations who fund these movies don’t stop to ask why their products aren’t being universally embraced by the very same groups of people for whom they were purportedly made. Why don’t they even care? Why, perhaps, have they never heard of the films until Oscars time rolls around — if at all? Could it be that the white and white-inclined makers of Heights and Story are making them to sate themselves as they dream their pleasant sueñitos at night? As long as they gather solid box office returns in Toledo, Ohio—or China, or the Netherlands—they’re golden. And they couldn’t even do that: both films were box-office disasters.
Spielberg talks about bringing the Sharks “into the conversation,” but he can’t deny the fact that his mind only allows him to think like the Jets, the gang that he and his Arizona pals pretended they were a part of when he had playtime as a kid. These filmmakers cannot imagine, for instance, grief that spills outside of realist representations. They can’t hear music that doesn’t hew to a Broadway standard.2 They can’t write immigrant families who talk about more than their legality in a bankrupt country. They can’t imagine a Honduran who is more enamored with Minnelli than Miranda; whose first movies were Selena and A Hard Day’s Night and whose desire for new film forms reflects these cross-pollinations. To them, Hollywood’s Latines (thought of as such—as a safe, singular, placid, visible, representable Group) are fragile, oppressed, lost, lonely, preferably caged (to make them all the more pitiable), yet still Dreamers. But the romantic hungers and cruel joys that spurt in erratic jolts out of any dysfunctional family is nowhere to be found in West Side Heights. The best thing is to embrace del Valle Schorske’s mindset: “I want it to flop so we can move on.” Go to Annette or Ferny & Luca, the real 2021 musical milestones, for the truth. If films aren’t being made with Leos Carax’s, Sparks’, or Andrew Infante’s militant eccentricity—so alien to Miranda the faux-Dreamer, not a regular part of the palette of Spielberg the neoclassical people-pleaser—then don’t bother.
I thank Andrea González-Ramírez of The Cut for hipping me to Bobby Sanabria’s incredible re-arrangement of Bernstein’s West Side Story score. Take a listen: https://open.spotify.com/album/5cfaubgFIkG0KZPyLijN5W?si=PEx01e5DT_6TALVAlmmD8g. It strikes me as a more filigreed, more imaginative harmonization of bomba and Broadway beats than any other arrangement—and a harmonization that finally opens up space for the all-important asides, side-dances, and appendages that make for the greatest musicals (if anyone ever wanted to cinematize Sanabria’s arrangement). ↩