Thursday, February 16, 2023


Spoiler Alert: Crucial plot points are revealed in the interest of critical analysis and discussion

Somewhere beyond the boundaries of the healthy, adaptive kind of Cultural Paranoia that I, a Black gay man, accesses daily to navigate hostile environments of discrimination and racial bias; on the far side of whatever amorphous fears are harbored by the kind of people who routinely dress in fatigues and buy anything with the word “Tactical” on the packaging; past the limits of the alternately narcissistic/masochistic borders of “Everyone’s out to get me!” delusional paranoia…there lies the macabre Twilight Zone that is Roman Polanski’s brilliant The Tenant. A bizarre, Kafkaesque exploration of social alienation and encroaching madness that film critic Vincent Canby accurately described as a nightmare vision of “Emotional isolation that becomes physical.”
Adapted for the screen with almost religious faithfulness by Polanski and longtime collaborator Gerard Brach from the 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique by Roland Topor, The Tenant marks the Academy Award-winning director’s 9th feature film. It also marks what many consider to be the third and final entry in his unofficial Urban Paranoia Trilogy (aka, his Apartment Trilogy): Repulsion – 1965, Rosemary’s Baby – 1965, & The Tenant – 1976. 
For his part, Polanski flatly denies ever deliberately setting out to make a contemporary terror triptych. But admirers of his work have seized upon the thematic recurrence in these films of many of the director’s most fervent obsessions: paranoia, alienation, sex, psychosis, and subjective reality. Each film in the trilogy is a modern-gothic study of urban dread set in a different, obliquely-threatening, impersonal city (London, Manhattan, and Paris, respectively). Their eerie narratives unfold largely within the oppressive confines of decaying apartment structures, wherein rooms take on the character of four-walled prisons-of-the mind, mirroring the progressive mental deterioration of their psychologically isolated protagonists.
The lead character in The Tenant is male (Polanski himself, his 3rd on-screen appearance in one of his own films), signifying the trilogy’s sole departure from having a woman as the central focus of a storyline. 
It's neither coy nor misleading when I say nothing could be further from the truth.
Roman Polanski as Trelkovsky
Isabelle Adjani as Stella
Shelley Winters as The Concierge
Melvyn Douglas as Monsieur Zy
Jo Van Fleet as Madame Dioz
Lila Kedrova as Madame Gaderian

There's a scene in the movie musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever where Barbra Streisand—as wallflower go-a-longer Daisy Gamble—discloses to hypnotherapist Yves Montand the results of a vocational guidance test: "Healthy, adjusted, and no character. I mean, no character of any kind. I mean, not even any…characteristics!”
Well, that describes The Tenant's Monsieur Trelkovsky in a nutshell. Trelkovsky, a soft-spoken Polish-born office clerk of indeterminate disposition who continually has to remind people he’s a French citizen, is a fellow who tiptoes through life as though he holds only a month-to-month tenancy on his own body.
During what can only be assumed to be a severe mid-‘70s Parisian housing shortage, Trelkovsky is so desperate for lodgings that he pursues—with a self-interest bordering on the ghoulish—the not-yet-vacated apartment of a not-yet-dead attempted suicide. The tenant, a young Egyptologist named Simone Choule, threw herself from the window of her flat just days before and now lies in a coma at a nearby hospital.
Faced with a moral conundrum (his wish to acquire the apartment is the silent, simultaneous wish that she won’t recover), Trelkovsky, in a gesture bearing the outward appearance of sympathy, but could just as likely be a cagey "calculation of probability" field trip—visits Mlle Choule in the hospital. Wrapped head to toe in bandages, the Egyptologist indeed looks like a mummy herself, with nothing of the woman beneath visible save for a single staring eye and a gaping mouth from which a tooth is conspicuously, grotesquely missing.
Presented as though it were a bonus feature of the apartment, the concierge shows
Trelkovsky the hole Simone Choule's body made in the glass awning four stories below
Simone Choule dies shortly after this visit (brought to a jarring conclusion when the patient lets out a soul-rattling scream at the sight of the stranger at her bedside). And Trelkovsky—pragmatically heedless of any possible bad omens augured by gaining advantageous self-benefit at the price of another's misfortune—wastes no time moving into the apartment. An apartment that hasn’t yet been entirely cleared of the dead woman’s possessions.

Early scenes show Trelkovsky getting what he wants by adopting a persona of over-polite inoffensiveness (e.g., he finesses the bulldoggish concierge by paying her a gratuity and placates the surly landlord by appealing to his financial practicality). These passively assertive acts suggest that perhaps Trelkovsky’s outwardly suppressed identity is more of an adaptive skill; a tool a Polish émigré hones in a city where being “foreign” instantly brands one a target of suspicion and distrust.
Presuming that a certain characterlessness and malleability of personality are what Trelkovsky has always relied upon as a survival mechanism to go about life as unobtrusively as possible; The Tenant effectively puts the turn to the screw by making this quality in Trelkovsky...a “vacancy of self”...the tragic flaw that will come to seal his fate. 
Though interested in Simone's friend, Stella, Trelkovsky, by lying about knowing Simone and keeping his occupancy of her apartment a secret, must keep part of his true identity hidden.  

The apartment building Trelkovsky now calls home can be summed up by a term coined in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery; a neurotic’s jackpot. Almost immediately after moving in, Trelkovsky begins to suspect every tenant of being a furtive, inhospitable oddball who, when not lodging noise complaints about his every move; monitoring his comings and goings; or staring into his apartment from windows across the courtyard, is working in concert in a plot to get him to somehow become Simon Choule and give an encore performance of her dramatically gravitational exit.

But after an incident at Simone's funeral (where his sexual guilt turns a eulogy into a fire and brimstone lambaste), it's apparent Trelkovsky isn't what you'd call a reliable narrator. 

Thus, The Tenant builds suspense by sustaining a disconcertingly ambiguous tone throughout. One is never quite sure whether Trelkovsky's horrors are psychological (a mental breakdown), sociological (xenophobia), or supernatural (anyone for a mummy’s curse?)
Trelkovsky: Tomb Raider
Clockwise from top left: 1. The mummified Simone Choule. 2. Trelkovsky receives a postcard of an Egyptian sarcophagus. 3. In a hallucinative state, Trelkovsky sees Egyptian hieroglyphs on the building’s communal bathroom wall. 4. Trelkovsky is given one of Simone's books, The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier (1858). 

Simone being an Egyptologist, rather than merely being a bit of backstory info about the former renter, becomes a prominent theme underscoring the somewhat paranormal shift The Tenant takes in its second act. The fact that so many of Simone Choule’s left-behind items (books, drawings, sculpture) reflect her interest and immersion in the culture of ancient Egypt makes Trelkovsky’s swift occupancy of her apartment feel as though he’s somehow disturbing the resting space of the deceased. Similarly, the Egyptian belief in immortality, with its attendant burial rituals devoted to preserving the body and the soul's rebirth, finds its queasy contemporary correlative in Simone Choule’s medical mummification. Swathed in bandages, Simone and her staring eye and missing tooth horrifically reference the Egyptian “opening of the mouth” ceremony; a rite performed to return the human senses to the soul in the afterlife.
Self-Alienation / Fragmented Identity
Trelkovsky’s “possession” by Simone is entirely superficial (he gains absolutely no insight into the woman’s self) signaling his metamorphosis is more a self-generated delusion than an act of actually "becoming" Choule. Amounting to little more than the appropriation of only the most external signifiers of Simone's identity—clothes, makeup, cigarettes, hot chocolate, books—Trelkovsky turning into Simone feels less like The Tenant seeking to explore the flexible quadrants of gender and more like surrealists Topor and Polanski merely attaching existential theory to the question "Do clothes make the (wo)man?"
Trelkovsky's one success at making human contact.
Unable to prevent his own suicide, Trelkovsky intervenes in the possible suicide of Simone's unrequited suitor George Bedar (played by Jacques Narcy). Bedar's romantic misdirection (he was apparently unaware of Simone's disinterest in men) mirrors Trelkovsky's inert sexuality

In Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski toyed with the notion of ancient evil (pagan witchcraft and Satan worship) surviving into the 20th century. A similar vein is mined in The Tenant’s paralleling of Egyptian mythology (immortality and the dominance of the soul in determining self) with the dissociative aspects of modern urban life (the separate-yet-together existence of apartment-dwelling) that prioritize the individual. I.e., a civilization that values holed-up privacy, solitude, keeping to oneself, and minding one’s own business can foster relativism and the solipsistic view that the mind alone is sovereign of the self.
But if the mind is the sole determiner of self, is each person then ruled by their own individual perception of reality?

Heads, attached and disembodied, figure as a motif in The Tenant. Ceramic busts appear in the apartments of Trelkovsky (Egyptian, of course) and Mr. Zy. Trelkovsky has a hallucination that his neighbors are playing football with a human head (Simone's or his own) in the courtyard
A drunk Trelkovsky ponders the philosophical, metaphysical,
and mythical concepts of "self"
The Tenant premiered at The Regency Theater in San Francisco in the summer of 1976, and I was beyond excited to see it. Expectations were high, as it had been two years since the release of Chinatown. The Tenant’s chilling teaser trailer (with the soon-to-be-unfortunate tagline “No one does it to you like Roman Polanski”) promised a welcome return to type from the director who scared the hell out of me when I was eleven with what was then...and still #1 favorite motion picture of all time: Rosemary’s Baby.
The Wide-Angle Distorted Perception Peephole Shot
Repulsion - Rosemary's Baby - The Tenant

It's not overstatement when I say The Tenant had me from the jump (pun possibly intended). After the sun-baked Southern California vistas of Chinatown, I was delighted with Polanski’s return to creepily claustrophobic interiors, menacing old people, and his lived-in, off-kilter brand of psychological horror. A movie that hits the ground running—with a dizzying, voyeuristic panning shot of apartment windows, revealing shifting glimpses of both Trelkovsky and Simone Choule staring through curtains at “the real(?)” Trelkovsky entering the courtyard to inquire about the availability of the apartment he already appears to be occupying—The Tenant is a film that wears its weirdness on its sleeve. 
That's the film's composer Philippe Sarde as the theater patron who prefers
watching Trelkovsky and Stella to watching the movie screen. It's a running paradox
in The Tenant that Trelkovsky's privacy decreases as his alienation increases.

Given invaluable, atmospheric assist by Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist and French composer Philippe Sarde, Polanski, in adapting Roland Topor’s novel, proves, as he did with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, he's adept at making someone else's nightmares seem as though they originated out of his own well-stocked store of personal demons and obsessions. Sharing Topor’s outsider's eye for finding the ominous in the ordinary (both are Paris-born sons of Polish-Jewish immigrant parents), the close-quarters dictates of The Tenant's setting allow Polanski to indulge his trademark canniness in turning living environments into starkly-rendered extensions of a character’s inner dread.  
Roland Topor, the surrealist artist, novelist, and playwright behind The Tenant, played
 Renfield opposite Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979). Topor's scatological preoccupations, dark humor, and absurdist worldview find their aesthetic twin in Polanski.

Psychological thrillers about personality theft, duality, and the fluidity of identity have fascinated me…forever. Especially when they spill over into possible supernatural/horror territory. Growing up the only boy of five children, parents divorced/mom remarries, Catholic school, gay, shy, and the only Black family in an all-white neighborhood gave me a leg-up in the “Who the fuck am I?” adolescent identity sweepstakes. So, films were my retreat, and movies that (melo)dramatized the puzzle of self: Vertigo (1958), The Servant (1963), Secret Ceremony (1968), Performance (1970), Images (1972), Obsession (1976), 3 Women (1977), Fedora (1978), Dead Ringers (1988), Single White Female (1992), and Black Swan (2010)—were my catharsis.
My recently having had the opportunity to read the novel prompted my partner and me to watch The Tenant last Halloween. My first time seeing the film in several years. This time out, I was struck by how many of the persecutory torments pushing Trelkovsky to the brink of madness (being persistently watched, always having his behavior monitored, instantly being branded a target of suspicion, prejudicially profiled, having his experience invalidated) is kinda like an average day for a Black person living in America. 
The terrorism of racism and "Living While Black" has always resulted in feelings of alienation, isolation, and anxiety among Black people, and movies like The Tenant have been a means of accessing those fears in a broad, generalized context. However, it wasn't until the release of 1995's Tales from the Hood by Rusty Cundieff, and Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017) that I ever saw a director illuminate the anxieties particular to racism and unique to the Black Experience in this country in the form and context of the horror genre.

The American cast members of The Tenant

Polanski started out as an actor (and never stopped, if all those behind-the-scenes photos of him “directing by demonstrating” tell the tale), so I wasn’t really surprised by how effective he is in the role of Trelkovsky. Casting himself very much to type, Polanski essentially IS the Trelkovsky of Topor’s novel...there being the shadow of something unsavory about him even at his most vulnerable. And he's particularly persuasive in conveying the anxiety and jumpy self-absorption that accompanies his character’s intensifying psychotic delusions. 
I've no idea what motivated Polanski to cast so many American actors in major roles in this Paris-set thriller (likely financial in origin, to secure American distribution or wide release). But the overall effect is so discordant it actually feels intentional. The clashing of Trelkovsky’s faint Polish accent against all those flat Yankee diphthongs dramatically emphasizes his "otherness.". At the same time, the incongruousness of the glaringly non-Gallic Shelly Winters, Jo Van Fleet, and Melvyn Douglas only seem to add another layer of wacko to The Tenant’s existing Theater of the Absurd vision of Paris. 
French cinema icon Claude Daupin makes a brief appearance (with Louba Guertchikoff)
 but his mellifluous accent is dubbed over with an affectless American voice 
Unfortunately, a similar decision to have many members of the film's French supporting cast dubbed (poorly) by American actors doesn't fare nearly as well. Certainly, a case could be made that those braying American voices coming out of the mouths of Trelkovsky's boorish friends is a reflection of how he sees them, but I only found it distracting. Polanski's eye for casting people with unusual and characterful faces is as sharp as ever, but hearing those commonplace voices coming out of those unorthodox faces was like having ice water thrown in my face. It jolts me out of the atmospheric dream world I'd rather be immersed in. 
Although sorely underutilized, I adore Isabelle Adjani in The Tenant. I only recently learned that Adjani's voice was dubbed by Dark Shadows actress Kathryn Leigh Scott. Seen here with Sam Waterston in 1974's The Great Gatsby

Polanski films are always rich in visual motifs, and The Tenant is no exception. The aforementioned Egyptian details, mummification references, and emphasis on all things cranial. Present, too, are his amplified ticking clocks and distorted perception shots of hallways and rooms (in particular, a fabulous fever dream sequence where Trelkovsky is dwarfed by the furniture in his room).
La Peinture Lure (Hello, Google Translate)
It seems Polanski hired Roland Topor to paint this mystifying poster
that appears frequently and enigmatically throughout the film

But in a film about paranoia, it's simply genius to have so many characters sporting those ginormous spectacles that were so popular in the '70s. They're like portable windows with magnified eyes staring out at Trelkovsky. 
The Tenant is one of my top five favorite Roman Polanski films. It's an intriguing puzzle that yields a different solution every time I watch it.

The First-Time Tenant
I moved to Los Angeles in 1978, and my very first apartment was a small furnished single on the second floor of The Villa Elaine Apartments in Hollywood. I was 20 years old, my first time away from home, and I couldn’t believe I was living within walking distance of THE Hollywood and Vine. The rent was $160 a month, including utilities, and I was in absolute heaven. Built in 1925, The Villa Elaine has since been declared a historical landmark. My old apartment now goes for $1650.
My Apartment Is In Here Somewhere
I lived in the Villa Elaine until 1981, moving to a courtyard-view apartment in 1979 that afforded a Rear Window panorama of my neighbors. Note the poster for The Tenant at bottom left
The day I moved into The Villa Elaine was Sunday, June 4, 1978. A date whose significance was compounded by what happened after I’d settled in and kissed my parents (who’d driven me and my blue storage trunk down from Berkeley for a weekend of whirlwind apartment-hunting) goodbye.
To exercise my freedom, I went out to look at my "new neighborhood." My walk took me to Hollywood Blvd., where the movie Grease was having its World Premiere at Mann's Chinese Theater. In those days, onlookers could stand and star-gaze in relative close proximity behind a velvet rope, so I was overjoyed at experiencing a real-life The Day of the Locust moment (minus the apocalyptic carnage) and screamed along with the rest when Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta arrived in a vintage car.
As I walked back to my apartment, the 1977 Rufus & Chaka Khan song “Hollywood” playing on a loop in my head; I was thoroughly over the moon. I couldn’t believe my first night in LA had serendipitously yielded such a quintessential, only-in-Hollywood experience. All of which I, of course, took as an omen that I had found my new home. And I guess it was; June 4th of 2023 will mark my 45th Anniversary as an LA resident.
The Villa Elaine courtyard as it looks today
I’ve lived in many apartments over the years, and I'm happy to say I've never had an experience even remotely similar to what’s in The Tenant.

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009  -  2023

Sunday, December 18, 2022


At age 76, multi-Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg is a full 11 years my senior. But when it comes to our mutual, lifelong love affair/obsession with West Side Story, he's practically my twin.

Both of us were introduced to West Side Story at roughly the same impressionable age: Spielberg, when he was 10, via the original 1957 Broadway cast album his father brought home one day (Spielberg dedicates this film to his late father); me, at age 11, by way of the 1967 theatrical re-release of the 1961 Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins movie (detailed in an earlier post). The indelible impression this ingeniously urbanized, musicalized retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet made on our young imaginations—book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, original stage production conceived, choreographed, and directed by Jerome Robbins—easily branded West Side Story as the first musical crush for us both. 

And while I never got in trouble for singing "Gee, Officer Krupke" at the dinner table like Spielberg, I can certainly attest to having immersed myself in West Side Story's OST Lp with equally matched zeal and fervor. At 11-years-old, I may not have been able to memorize Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," but should anyone have asked, I could have easily recited the lyrics to every song from West Side Story.   
1957                                                 1961
Surprisingly, this awareness of a shared reverence for West Side Story did absolutely nothing to mollify the host of misgivings flooding my brain when word came out that Spielberg would be cutting his musical teeth by directing a new screen adaptation of West Side Story. With each new press release cagily sidestepping the dreaded R-word: "remake” in favor of the PR-friendly: “reimaging,”; I could feel the muscles in my neck coiling tighter and tighter. The thought of anyone tinkering with my beloved West Side Story immediately sent me spiraling off into something akin to a film geek's version of bling Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief”:

1. Denial – I reminded myself there’d been fruitless talk about remaking West Side Story for decades. Nothing ever came of them, and this time would be no different.
2. Anger – I railed at the Hollywood machine and its remake/franchise addiction. Who the hell asked for a remake of West Side Story? With all the absolutely dreadful musicals in need of remaking, they choose one of the few that got it right? And what about all those great shows that have yet to make it to the screen? Better they should make a film version of Sondheim's Follies or help get Glenn Close that long-deserved Oscar by making of movie of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard.
3. Bargaining – Well, I reasoned…if West Side Story HAS to be remade, at least it’ll be by a talented, seasoned old pro like Steven Spielberg. A man who truly loves the material and knows how to tell a story. I kept reminding myself that it could just as easily have been Rob Marshall (Nine), Susan Strohman (The Producers), Tom Hooper (Cats), or Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) at the helm. Yikes!
4. Depression – The first leaked photo of the new cast of WSS was underwhelming, to say the least. 
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But this one left me with just one: "Uh-oh!"
Though I've since had to eat my words, my first thought when I saw this cast photo (with its weird cut-and-paste look that turns everyone into floating Colorforms® figures) was that it reminded me of something I'm always happy to forget: an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. The new Maria looked ideal, but the rest of the cast called forth nightmare visions of Newsies (1992) or worse...Richard Attenborough's A Chorus Line (1985).
5. Acceptance – Every single argument of resistance I'd held regarding the wrong-headed inadvisability of what I'd come to regard as "Spielberg's Folly" crumbled into an irrelevant heap at my feet when I got my first glimpse of West Side Story via the premiere of its teaser trailer during the 93rd Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, April 25, 2021. I wasn't ready. 
Apparently, all the seized-up muscles in my neck needed to get them to relax was for me to hear that tritone "Jets whistle" again. And all that was necessary to uproot my firmly dug-down heels was to see a mere 90 seconds of montage heralding Spielberg's vision. The trailer gave me instant goosebumps AND waterworks, and suddenly the movie I'd scoffed at for well over a year had become the movie I absolutely had to see. 
The Sharks (click image to enlarge)
Once I stopped resisting the idea of a new West Side Story (i.e., focusing on the innumerable, highly probable ways it could be a disaster) my mind began entertaining the tantalizing possibilities a new adaptation posed. For example, I had not considered how thrilling it might be to hear new, full-scale arrangements of all my favorite West Side Story songs. Auguring particularly well for Spielberg's adaptation was the fact that there was to be none of that desperate "Oscar Bait" business of adding a new song to the composed "Especially for the movie!"
The Jets (click image to enlarge)
West Side Story’s groundbreaking use of dance is such a significant part of its legacy and appeal, I couldn’t wait to see what this version had up its sleeve in terms of tackling the one aspect of the show many fans consider to be sacrosanct; Jerome Robbins’ iconic original choreography. Here again, I was encouraged by Spielberg's instincts. Fearful that he was going to select a flavor-of-the-month choreographer from music videos or pop concerts, my heart leapt when I learned that the film's dances would be created by Justin Peck, Tony Award winner and resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet. Now, you're talking!  — ¡Ponle fuego, vamos!     
But standing head and shoulders above everything else (eclipsing even my elation at finding out that James Corden hadn't been cast in any role) was my hope for this new West Side Story to offer, at last, a “cringe-free” viewing experience. My love for the classic 1961 version (and its stars, Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn) has never waned in all this time. But with each passing year—what with contemporary America rolling out the welcome mat to old-school racism, and the advent of HD Blu-ray rendering all those actors in brownface makeup with a clarity as jarring as it is embarrassing—it has grown more difficult for me to minimize and look beyond the wince-inducing whitewash casting and the stereotyped depiction of its Puerto Rican characters. The chance for a more ethnically-authentic West Side Story was exhilarating in its potential.    
Rachel Zegler as Maria Vasquez
Anson Elgor as Anton (Tony) Wyzek
Ariana DeBose as Anita Palacio
David Alvarez as Bernardo Vasquez
Mike Faist as Riff Lorton
Rita Moreno as Valentina

Although I desperately wanted to see West Side Story when it opened at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood on Friday, December 10, 2021, a post-Thanksgiving surge in local COVID cases gave pause to my enthusiasm. Therefore, diligently avoiding reviews and spoilers in the interim (easier than you'd think), I finally got to see West Side Story a rather swift-passing four months later when my partner alerted me of it being streamed online in HD for free to AARP members (ka-ching!) as part of its “Movies for Grown-Ups” series. (I think AARP understood the target demographic for this West Side Story better than Spielberg or 20th Century Fox.) 
Josh Andres Rivera as Chino Martin
character change: now a thicc snack
iris menas as Anybodys
character change: now a transmasculine teen and first-rate ass-kicker  
Jump ahead in time: Me in front of the TV screen, surrounded by junk food, watching the stunning time-lapse end credits (by Drew Geraci) play out over a stirringly lush medley of Leonard Bernstein's beautiful music. The red-eyed, runny-nosed, blubbering mess I’d been reduced to at the end of 2 ½ hours only confirming what I’d already known after five far as this lifelong fan of West Side Story was concerned, Steven Spielberg’s masterwork adaptation had caught the moon. One-handed catch. I loved it.
Brian d'Arcy James as Sergeant Krupke / Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank
Hats off to any film that can--at my age--reignite that childlike awe I've always held for the way movies can create entire worlds of the believably impossible within a tiny, rectangular frame. Watching West Side Story turned out to be one of the most enlivening movie-watching experiences I’ve had in too long a while. Not to put too much on the shoulders of Spielberg & Co., but who knew that a good, old-fashioned movie musical…magnificently realized…was just the joyous, hopeful glimpse of light I needed to reaffirm my sense of life beginning to emerge from under the dark cloak of Hellscape: America post-2016?
I like Spielberg's decision not to subtitle the Spanish dialogue.
The screenplay is available online, and one of the many sharp conversations I translated is
Anita's challenge to Bernardo that he hasn't married her because she's Black
I’ve read pieces characterizing the changes to West Side Story by Tony Kushner (who wrote the screenplays for Spielberg’s Munich-2005, Lincoln-2012, and The Fabelmans-2022) as additions. To me, the work of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer feel more like extractions. He extracts the era-defined racial myopia of both the stage and movie adaptations to make the material resonate as truer, not newer.

The pleasure of Spielberg's West Side Story is that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to see a movie musical that actually feels like a genuine movie. By that, I mean a movie musical that isn't ironic, apologetic, a pastiche, a cartoon, a music video on steroids, or one of those depressingly sterile Glee/High School Musical things that mistake garish hyperactivity for the stuff of dreams. West Side Story, with its unabashed romanticism and playful surrender to the conventions of the genre, feels like an old-fashioned movie musical in the very best sense of the word. Evidence, perhaps, that a…ahem, mature, traditionalist director like Spielberg was just the person for the job.
My favorite thing about the glorious cinematography by Oscar-winner and longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List-1993, Saving Private Ryan- 1998, A.I.-2001, Lincoln-2012) is the use of backlight flare and reflective bursts of light and color to create the glamour of dreamy romance or the flashpoint tension of violence. 
As much as I respect his talent and have enjoyed several of his movies (Jaws, The Color Purple), Steven Spielberg has never been one of my favorite directors (I compiled a list once, and he doesn’t even make the top 30). Part of this is due to how often he works in genres that never much interested me (action, adventure, war movies, historical dramas). But I also find in his films and directing style a tendency to lapse into mawkish sentimentality or boyish whimsy that in many instances feels misplaced, or contributes to undermining moments of genuine emotion.

But personal tastes aside, I don’t think anyone who knows anything about filmmaking would argue that Spielberg is not a gifted visual storyteller, skilled craftsman, and well-versed in the vocabulary of cinema. The marvelous thing revealed in seeing Spielberg apply his particular brand of “Great Entertainer” genius to a musical, is that the dominant traits of the genre: exuberance, nostalgia, romanticism, dreamy fantasy, broad strokes characterizations, oversized emotions, amplified sentiment…play specifically to Spielberg’s strengths, flatter his flaws, and turn even his most irksome vices into virtues.
Ilda Mason as Luz  / Ana Isabelle as Rosalia

What ultimately cooled my “How dare they tamper with a classic!” indignation over West Side Story was the degree to which every square inch of every frame stood testament to Spielberg's evident care and affection for the material. His palpable desire to do right by the story, music, and dances gives the film an irresistible exuberance that imbues the now 65-year-old musical with an urgency and freshness I honestly hadn't thought possible. Even as I think about it now, I'm so impressed by the way Spielberg’s West Side Story manages to be respectfully faithful to the theatrical production, honor the film version, yet still leave its mark as a boldly distinctive and personal adaptation.

For a movie musical to really get to me, there's usually a sequence or image that captures my imagination and etches itself in my mind as emblematic of the moment my heart was lost. Like a dream portal…it’s not anything I consciously select, but rather, some kind of internal Polaroid snapshot taken during that elusive and spontaneous “goosebump moment.”  In Ken Russell's The Boy Friend, it was when two dancers became Art Deco figurines on a giant gramophone. In Cabaret it was Liza Minnelli draped like a Dali painting over the back of a chair singing "Mein Herr." And in Jesus Christ Superstar it was when Judas emerges from the catacombs of an ancient arena in a Vegas-fringed bodysuit, flanked by a trio of angels with glowing white afros. 
My West Side Story goosebump moment, which has already taken root in my mind as the apex instant of the entire film, is that phenomenal low-angle tracking shot of Anita and a squad of women racing down the middle of the street...full throttle in heels, capris, and twirly skirts a-flipping…in the “America” number. John Ford would understand why this shot is so effective ("When the horizon is at the top, it's interesting. When it's at the bottom, it's interesting. When it's in the middle it's boring as shit!"), but add the combination of music, movement, and jubilant playfulness of the dancers, and you've got a scene that made me gasp as my heart hit the ceiling. 

I love that Rita Moreno, 1961 West Side Story's Oscar-winning Anita, is a co-producer on this film and appears in a substantial supporting role created for the film. She's wonderful as you'd expect, and if she didn't get nominated for an Oscar again (she didn't) it wasn't for lack of trying. Her rendition of "Somewhere" is a heartbreaker, and Spielberg practically crafts her role as a series of ready-made Oscar preview clips. All the odds seemed in her favor, but perhaps Natalie Wood was looking down and exacted a little Awards Season karma.

The Golden Age movie musicals I watched on TV as a kid (original vehicles designed to showcase the talents of a particular star) conditioned me not to expect too much in the way of acting from musicals. In my teens, when the economic demands of adapting Broadway hits for the screen necessitated the casting of bankable names, films like Camelot, Paint Your Wagon, and Man of La Mancha all seemed to come with mutually-exclusive ultimatums: “Do you want movie stars who can actually act, or do you want song & dance talent with the screen charisma of Spam? Take your pick, ‘cause you can't have both.” 
Everyone shines in West Side Story (hands down the best-acted WSS I've ever seen), but Ariana DeBose (Oscar winner), Mike Faist, & David Alvarez are particularly effective in their roles.   
So, I’ve nothing but admiration for Spielberg using his industry clout (the most financially successful director of all time) and fame (he, in essence, is the film’s bankable star)’s the film’s sole bankable name) to make West Side Story the right way: with an extraordinary ensemble cast of young Broadway-trained. (And hallelujah! No one from the world of pop music!)

Understandably, many will still find West Side Story inherently problematic no matter how many issues are addressed, but personally, I'm overjoyed that Steven Spielberg made a West Side Story I can embrace fully, rather than love at arm's-length. And now, a few parting shots in appreciative recognition of Steven Spielberg, the visual storyteller.
Prologue / Jet Song
Something's Coming
The Dance at the Gym
Balcony Scene (Tonight)
Gee, Officer Krupke
One Hand, One Heart
Tonight Quintet
I Feel Pretty

As best I could, I’ve tried to keep comparisons between the two West Side Story films to a minimum. The reason why can be found in Stephen Sondheim’s 2010 memoir Finishing the Hat. In it, he relates an anecdote about nervously inviting Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman to see his 1973 Broadway musical A Little Night Music, which Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler had adapted from Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night
At the end of the show, Sondheim was quick to apologize to the filmmaker for the liberties taken, whereupon Bergman calmed his fears with a perceptive observation: “No, no, Mr. Sondheim, I enjoyed the evening very much. Your piece has nothing to do with my movie, it merely has the same story.” 

That's how I feel about West Side Story 1961 and 2021. The world can accommodate both magnificent musicals. One doesn't have to replace or cancel out the other. And as I have fallen in love with each, there's no need for me to have to choose between them. They're both superb, entirely different movies. They merely share the same story.

Not His First Time at the Rodeo
West Side Story may be Steven Spielberg's first full-scale musical, but clearly, the genre has always fascinated him. Musical sequences appear in several of his films (1941, The Color Purple). 1991's Hook was actually conceived and partially shot as a musical (songs by John Williams & Leslie Bricusse). And sometime in the early '80s a musical titled Reel to Reel was planned but scrapped.
Controversially, Spielberg's Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (1984) credits sequence is an elaborate production number of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" choreographed by Danny Daniels (Pennies from Heaven - 1981).
Kate Capshaw sings to her future husband while modeling what appear
to be sequined gardening gloves in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom  

Steven with his father Arnold Spielberg - June 1999

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