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Spielberg's West Side Story makes so many errors

Replacing Doc with Valentina, for one

From Spielberg's West Side Story released on Dec. 10, 2021.
From Spielberg's West Side Story released on Dec. 10, 2021.

West Side Story as directed by Steven Spielberg is currently streaming on HBOMax and Disney+. I have long thought about having my kids, ages 18 and 14, watch the original so I thought this was a good opportunity to introduce them to some of the greatest American music ever written.

Video:

Tony and Maria singing "Somewhere"

From 1961 version of <em>West Side Story</em>

From 1961 version of West Side Story

It was not. It was an opportunity to witness the hapless state of modern storytelling.

There is no disputing that Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story is a masterpiece. The greatness of this music is self-evident.

I thought the musical execution in this new movie was good, but the singing was nowhere close to the 1961 version. The rest of the movie was full of clever ideas that got in the way of the story that the music is telling.

Spielberg utilized the idea of Lincoln Center being built at the time in which West Side Story is taking place. We learn that the Jets and the Sharks are going to be moving because they won’t be able to afford the new developments around Lincoln Center.

The conflict in West Side Story is about establishing and protecting gang turf. If everyone is losing their turf to Lincoln Center then where’s the conflict? It would make more sense for them to be united against the gentrification of their neighborhood. That is bad storytelling.

It would appear as if each of the principal actors was asked to write a simple backstory for their character and then these backstories were put into the film. Tony spent a year in juvie for beating a kid up real bad. Bernardo is a boxer. Anita is a seamstress who wants to be her own boss. Those are fine ideas, but a backstory is for the performer to access not for the audience.

The allure of a musical is that the characters are expressed through the music they sing and, in West Side Story, the way that they dance. For instance, Tony and Maria don’t dance much in the original. They are out of step with the rest of the characters.

Poster for 1961 movie

The most egregious idea was to replace Doc with Valentina. In the original, Doc is fulfilling the role of Friar Laurence from Romeo and Juliet. The 1961 West Side Story has him play the role of father, so to speak, to Tony.

Now we have the immortal Rita Moreno, the original Academy Award-winning Anita, playing this role as Doc’s Puerto Rican widow Valentina. The father figure has been replaced by a mother figure.

Never mind that Anita is already the mother figure, in the role of Nurse, to Maria. Apparently, two strong mothers is a better idea than the inclusion of a wise and benevolent father figure. More bad storytelling.

The final clever idea that sunk Spielberg’s effort was taking the song, “Somewhere” away from Tony and Maria and giving it to Valentina. Why would Valentina sing this song?

There was literally a place for her with Doc at his shop for several decades. She had played the role of a long-lived Juliet to Doc’s Romeo. Shouldn’t Tony and Maria make it based on Doc and Valentina?

Valentina’s character is akin to replacing Father Laurence with a Capulet woman who had been openly married to a Montague for 40 years. I take it back, that isn’t a clever idea. It’s a stupid idea based on wanting to cast one of the original movie actors and then finding a song for her to sing. It's a typical bad reboot move. It's also bad storytelling.

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From Spielberg's West Side Story released on Dec. 10, 2021.
From Spielberg's West Side Story released on Dec. 10, 2021.

West Side Story as directed by Steven Spielberg is currently streaming on HBOMax and Disney+. I have long thought about having my kids, ages 18 and 14, watch the original so I thought this was a good opportunity to introduce them to some of the greatest American music ever written.

Video:

Tony and Maria singing "Somewhere"

From 1961 version of <em>West Side Story</em>

From 1961 version of West Side Story

It was not. It was an opportunity to witness the hapless state of modern storytelling.

There is no disputing that Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story is a masterpiece. The greatness of this music is self-evident.

I thought the musical execution in this new movie was good, but the singing was nowhere close to the 1961 version. The rest of the movie was full of clever ideas that got in the way of the story that the music is telling.

Spielberg utilized the idea of Lincoln Center being built at the time in which West Side Story is taking place. We learn that the Jets and the Sharks are going to be moving because they won’t be able to afford the new developments around Lincoln Center.

The conflict in West Side Story is about establishing and protecting gang turf. If everyone is losing their turf to Lincoln Center then where’s the conflict? It would make more sense for them to be united against the gentrification of their neighborhood. That is bad storytelling.

It would appear as if each of the principal actors was asked to write a simple backstory for their character and then these backstories were put into the film. Tony spent a year in juvie for beating a kid up real bad. Bernardo is a boxer. Anita is a seamstress who wants to be her own boss. Those are fine ideas, but a backstory is for the performer to access not for the audience.

The allure of a musical is that the characters are expressed through the music they sing and, in West Side Story, the way that they dance. For instance, Tony and Maria don’t dance much in the original. They are out of step with the rest of the characters.

Poster for 1961 movie

The most egregious idea was to replace Doc with Valentina. In the original, Doc is fulfilling the role of Friar Laurence from Romeo and Juliet. The 1961 West Side Story has him play the role of father, so to speak, to Tony.

Now we have the immortal Rita Moreno, the original Academy Award-winning Anita, playing this role as Doc’s Puerto Rican widow Valentina. The father figure has been replaced by a mother figure.

Never mind that Anita is already the mother figure, in the role of Nurse, to Maria. Apparently, two strong mothers is a better idea than the inclusion of a wise and benevolent father figure. More bad storytelling.

The final clever idea that sunk Spielberg’s effort was taking the song, “Somewhere” away from Tony and Maria and giving it to Valentina. Why would Valentina sing this song?

There was literally a place for her with Doc at his shop for several decades. She had played the role of a long-lived Juliet to Doc’s Romeo. Shouldn’t Tony and Maria make it based on Doc and Valentina?

Valentina’s character is akin to replacing Father Laurence with a Capulet woman who had been openly married to a Montague for 40 years. I take it back, that isn’t a clever idea. It’s a stupid idea based on wanting to cast one of the original movie actors and then finding a song for her to sing. It's a typical bad reboot move. It's also bad storytelling.

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Comments
5

I haven't seen the new version yet. But I think your opinion is misguided. Screenwriter Tony Kushner (not Spielberg) is responsible for the storytelling. Yes, Spielberg hired Kushner, but it seems he had full faith in Kusher's new version of events and characters. There is NO rule that a remake must stay the same. Ben-Hur was better the second time (in 1959). Other movies have changed the script, and the remake is better.

March 25, 2022

"I haven't seen the new version yet..." Then you have nothing to add to the conversation. Kushner may have written the script, but spielberg's the storyteller. See the movie. We suffered,. Why shouldn't you?

March 25, 2022

I am waiting for it to come to Amazon Prime Video. ;-) I did have something to add; that's why I wrote it. The point is that many consider the new version a masterpiece. Also, without a screenplay, there is NO story for the director to tell. It all starts with written words on the blank page (or screen). Then the "storytelling" is done by a large cast and crew, with directors often just being the "manager" or "commanding general" of the collaborative process. So I don't agree that the director is necessarily the "storyteller." It's always a team effort. Choreographer Justin Peck said this in an interview: “It was very collaborative working with Steven Spielberg and [cinematographer] Janusz Kaminski on how the dances would be captured on camera." Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Tim Burton, etc. are auteurs.. I don't think it's been decided if Spielberg is or not. Is he a storyteller? Well, he's a major part of the team.

March 25, 2022

If you're referring to Tim Burton as an auteur, I'll politely sit this one out.

March 25, 2022

Oh, jump on in, Scott. The more, the merrier.

March 25, 2022

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