Spielberg’s Take on West Side Story

Hello everyone. Welcome back to #moviemonday. A few weeks ago I talked about the 1960 adaptation of West Side Story and I said that eventually I would talk about the Spielberg adaptation of the movie. 

The Spielberg adaptation of West Side Story is available to watch on Disney plus (unfortunately I didn’t make it to the cinema to see this movie even though I really wanted to), so I finally got to sit down and enjoy this movie. Usually I’m really bad at waiting to see the movie. I’ll read about a movie or I’ll watch clips online because spoilers have never bothered me, but this time I’ve been really good. I didn’t watch anything except the trailer so today I am giving my honest thoughts after watching the Speilberg take on the classic West Side Story for the first time. 

Let’s dive in. 

As I am writing this discussion, I don’t have a favourite version, but perhaps by the time I finish my discussion, my thoughts will be different. 

This discussion will be slightly different from my usual Movie Monday discussions as instead of using my usual structure of plot, characters, themes and structure, I’m going to talk about Spielberg’s style because I’ve already talked about the characters and themes of this movie in my discussion of the 1960 adaptation of West Side Story and the movie’s characters and the themes have obviously stayed the same, although I will say that I definitely prefer the Maria and Tony in the 1960 adaptation. 

I think that there are two things that stand out when one is watching a movie directed by Speilberg. The first being the fact that I think his directing style is very physical as actors will move through a scene so it is clear that Spielberg spends time doing a lot of physical blocking, and the second being that he often uses many shots in one by changing compositions and having varying shot sizes. This makes for a more dynamic scene because it keeps viewers engaged and it holds our attention and it keeps things from becoming dull. Having actors move through a scene is a very engaging technique as well because when an actor is using their entire body in a scene, when they are physically taking up space and using it well, it can be very impactful. There is a fluidity to Speilberg movies that make them visually really satisfying to watch and his take on West Side Story is no different. 

I think that the social mixer at the gym is a great example of his use of many shots. There are so many shots in this scene, you can’t help but be an engaged viewer. It’s fast, it’s loud, it’s bright, there is tension in the room between the Jets and the Sharks, everyone is dancing, trying to show off, the choreography is slick, and there are so many shots that it feels as though you’re in the hall too as opposed to just watching. It is a brilliant scene that is full of life and then things slow down when Tony and Maria meet for the first time. They dance behind the bleachers, their choreography is not explosive or slick, it’s slower, it’s more intimate, it’s almost wistful because the two are stunned almost by each other, it’s actually a very theatrical moment. 

The two standouts for me were Ariana DeBose as Anita and Mike Faist as Riff. 

Anita has always been my favourite character in the movie and I think she always will be. 

I really enjoyed Ariana DeBose’s take on America. She was beautiful, she was passionate, she was electric, the costuming was beautiful. She played the part with such energy and she was flirty and confident yet there were moments when Anita’s anger was just perfectly portrayed. 

Riff was brilliant. Riff is one of those characters who has to be played right, because he is awful. He is ignorant, he is racist, he is also very misunderstood, this life and this attitude is all he knows, the Jets are all he has, and in his mind, he is doing the right thing, he is defending the Jets and defending their territory and I think there should always been an underlying sadness when it comes to Riff. He could have been so much more, he could have straightened out if he wanted to, he could have gotten out, but he chose not to, he chose violence, he chose ignorance, he chose hate, and yet when a gun is held to his head and he says “Shoot. You might as well.” (Paraphrased.), this moment should be moving. This moment tells audiences everything you need to know about how Riff truly feels about himself and Mike Faist delivered this line so well. I believed him as Riff. I hated his ignorance, I was angry about his racism, I was frustrated by his choices, as I should be, that is the point. I don’t even think I mentioned Riff in my last discussion and I should have because he’s such a complex character and this time, he is the character who caught my attention the most. 

The choreography was stunning. I loved it. Something that I really love about both the 1960 adaptation and this one is the fact that the stage musical is not entirely lost. The big, elaborate, beautifully dynamic dance numbers are larger than life the way they would be on a stage and I just love that. My favourite performances were America and Cool. 

America is the most colourful, alive part of the movie. It’s fast, it’s bright, it’s joyful, it’s wishful, and I think this is a number where dancers get to shine. It was brilliant to watch as it should be. 

Cool is slick. Cool is precise. Cool is an elaborate number on a smaller scale. It’s meticulously choreographed. The movements are so smooth and every step with the gun is so intentional. The beats are so important. I can imagine that rehearsing this took a lot of time because the timing of Cool is so crucial. It’s about the back and forth, who has the gun? Who is holding it? Where is it going next? It’s tense because when we watch we don’t want it to go off, yet the number is slick, and tight, and so smooth and pardon the pun, but it’s so cool. Riff comes off like he’s cooler than anyone ever, and it is brilliant. 

Overall I think the 1960 adaptation will always be my favourite, just because it was the version I saw first when I was young and I loved it so much, and although I felt Spielberg’s directing was great and the lighting and choreography was beautiful, I just didn’t feel that same magic I feel whenever I watch the 1960 version. Maybe that’s my own nostalgia, but sometimes things just can’t be topped, they can be rivalled, they can be equalled, but they can’t always be topped. 

This has been Movie Monday. I hope you enjoyed it. 

I know I’ve been absent for a while but I am excited to be publishing discussions again. 

I hope you all have a great week and I will be back with another #theorythursday discussion this week. Stay tuned. 

Kate xo. 

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