Despite receiving good reviews, the new Spielberg movie version of West Side Story is reported as not doing well at the box office. That's why I decided to go see it today (a nearly deserted matinee, like the one at which I saw Dune): both to contribute my mite towards its receipts and to see it on screen while I still could, as it's likely to disappear soon.
And to facilitate comparison, I streamed the Wise/Robbins 1961 film from Amazon first.
To my mind, West Side Story exists for the glory of its music. And for that, you don't want to see either movie. You want a good recording of the stage show, like the MTT/SFS live version I attended the concert of several years ago and snapped up as soon as it appeared on CD. The 1961 movie suffered from a crass and overblown orchestration that composer Leonard Bernstein hated, and the sound quality, though it won an Oscar, of 60-year-old celluloid is crude and tinny next to a good CD or LP. The new film's songs have quiet and tasteful orchestrations that, if anything, undersell the songs.
Most of the reviews are about the way the new movie handles the ethnic relations, so I'll let them discuss that and add only one thing, concerning the replacement of the character Doc with his (newly conceived, I think) widow, Valentina, who is played by Rita Moreno. A great way to honor this veteran of the earlier film, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody that having had Doc, a white man, marry a Puerto Rican serves as a precedent that undercuts the transgressiveness of Tony and Maria's romance. That's something that Peter Jackson would do, and there's few stronger negatives in film criticism in my vocabulary than that comparison.
Tony Kushner's screenplay is an astronomical-scale improvement on the truly sucky dialogue of the earlier movie, and Kushner does two other things I really liked. One is to set the marriage scene on a date on which Tony takes Maria up to the Cloisters. I took B. up to the Cloisters on our only trip to NYC together, and we had a wonderful time even though we were already married. The other truly admirable thing was to intensify and focus the character of Bernardo and his anger at his sister's romance. When Bernardo tells Tony at the rumble that Tony just wants to claim a "brown girl" (Bernardo's words) as his right as a white man, that really bites hard and shows what's generating the anger.
In the later part of the story, the build-up to the final tragedy, Kushner pretty much follows the existing outline, except that he sets "I Feel Pretty" immediately after the rumble instead of before it, an incongruity which destroys the building tension and may be responsible for my feeling that this movie, despite the superior dialogue, doesn't intensify that tension as well as the older movie does.
The dancing, choreographed by Justin Peck, is Jerome Robbinsy in general affect without being quite so intensely so as work by the original, and consequently feels less unreal in scenes like the opening gang walk and the mixer dance. Setting "America" as an outdoor street scene works very well.
The little man isn't giving a standing ovation but he is at least sitting up alertly.