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An open Letter to Mr. Spielberg and Ms. Moreno about "West Side Story."
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Open Letter to Mr. Spielberg and Ms. Moreno,
There are a few “rules” that I adhere to in my thinking about artistic efforts. One of them is to never try to remake perfection. Don’t do covers of Beatles songs; don’t remake “The Godfather;” don’t try to out-riff Robin Williams. There is no upside to such endeavors: you can’t avoid the comparison, and you can’t do it better, so what is the purpose?
I fell in love with “West Side Story” when I was 18 years old. It struck me then — and I still feel it now — that this is the quintessential piece of American performing art. What is more American than taking a piece of classic English literature and updating it and adapting it for a modern world, as Jerome Robbins did with “Romeo and Juliet?” What is more American than incorporating idioms from classical music, jazz, and Latin music, as Leonard Bernstein did with the musical score? On top of that, design a production that shows off the best of dance, combining the grace of ballet and the raw athletic power of modern dance. And then put it all together in a play/movie which instantly became iconic, with lines and melodies that generations know instantly, even if they don’t necessarily know where they came from.
Why would you remake that?
I went to the theater last week with my wife fully prepared to be disappointed, or, at least, unimpressed.
I. Was. Wrong.
Thank you, Mr. Spielberg and Ms. Moreno, for bringing this movie to the screens.
Where you were completely faithful to the original, it did not feel stale or contrived in any way. The slight variations you made on the original are, in my opinion, smart and effective. And, in fact, I very much appreciated how, by altering small pieces of the setting or subtle lines of dialogue, you made the movie even more relevant in our “modern” world. You managed to capture so many of the ambiguities of our whole conversation about race, assimilation, privilege, and the “other” without beating us over the head with it. Frankly, you did it with more nuance, grace and compassion than we deserve — certainly more than we’re used to.
And, I must admit, there are things in this movie that are notably better than the original. For one thing, the Sharks, in the original movie, while brilliant dancers and actors, had a … difficult … time holding pitch singing. Not so in this one. Also, let’s face facts: Natalie Wood was neither Latina nor was she a singer. Rachel Zegler is both, and what a revelation (!) she is as Maria. I also appreciated some of the advanced movie-making elements of this version, like the street settings and the cinematography.
And the music! Thank you for not shying away from letting Bernstein’s score resonate through the modern movie. It is, obviously, a challenge trying to render theatrical music to the screen (at least, without resorting to casting Anna Kendrick), and you seemed to actually embrace the complicated, involved and brilliant music and let all the emotions of the story ride these melodies. I’ve been humming “Tonight” (the single greatest American song ever) around the house for two weeks now. I particularly appreciated that you allowed the dance scenes their full expression — I suspect that many of us are not acquainted with the joy and passion of la cultura puertorriquena, but it’s tough to remain blind to it after seeing this movie.
In other words, thank you for having the courage and vision to ignore my “rules” and remake perfection. And improve on it.
And bring it to a new generation.
And, to my readers, if you want to start 2022 with something beautiful, something elevating (if tragic), to break from the dreck of the last two years, go see this movie. Pay box office for it. Support beauty.
Michael Alcorn is a former teacher and current writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Valkyrie’s Kiss,” a finalist in the ScreenCraft Book Competition, is available now at firstname.lastname@example.org. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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