In the footsteps of “West Side Story”

Spielberg reinterprets in the cinema the monument of the musical comedy, a rant on racism and violence. Return to New York to the emblematic places of a timeless tale.

“I like to be in America […] Life can be bright in America… If you can fight in America! ” If we’ve all hummed this song, its hard-hitting lyrics have escaped our notice: “I love America. […] Life can be bright in America… But only if you can fight in America! ” Going back to the source of “West Side Story”, that of the musical created in 1957 at the Winter Garden Theater, in the middle of Broadway, forgetting the watered-down version of Robert Wise who will triumph in the cinema four years later, that is the goal that had Steven Spielberg by attacking the myth. Originally, this New York-style “Romeo and Juliet” tale was a fable about racism and violence, already endemic in American society. Much more meaningful than in the 1961 film or the covers of the show that will follow. To follow in the footsteps of “West Side Story”, you have to leave the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan. It is in the far north and east of the peninsula that this “West Side” still lives. Brown stone buildings, fire ladders, small dark courtyards and not very inviting alleys, the neighborhoods of Washington Heights or East Harlem have kept the memory of this popular, poor and ethnic New York.

Trailer: Steven Spielberg Tells a “West Side Story”

There is still the famous court where the heroine, Maria lives, the basketball court where the Jets and the Sharks face each other. Here, nothing has changed or almost. A disturbing immersion to make you whistle “Tonight” without realizing it. The magic of cinema operates when, apart from these few emblematic places, the first film was mainly shot in the studio… and in Hollywood! “Steven wanted to rediscover the very special essence of New York,” explains Robert Steiner, head of the film’s sets. The city and his fever were the main character for him. ” Sizeable problem: Hell’s Kitchen, the western district of Manhattan where immigrants, rival gangs and petty trafficking of all kinds were concentrated, no longer exists as it is. A few streets further north, the Lincoln Towers and Lincoln Center, now the city’s cultural hotspot, stand exactly where Robert Wise had filmed all of the exteriors of his film, a dilapidated neighborhood that will be razed to the ground at the end of the filming. Spielberg winks at it more than supported in his film. “We shot where we could,” continues Robert Steiner.

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Spielberg’s version is more of a musical drama than a comedy

In East Harlem for several dance sequences filmed in the streets. In Brooklyn for the interior scenes. Finally, we found in Paterson, New Jersey, about thirty kilometers from Manhattan, the right place to rebuild an entire neighborhood. ” Ironically, Spielberg and his team have taken over a vast vacant lot surrounded by period buildings. Land that has since been built. Like a nod to the shooting of the first film. “West Side Story” or the eternal field of ruins of an America in full mutation, eaten away by the limits of its melting pot. In the credits, Steven Spielberg dedicates the film to his father, who died of cancer during the shooting. It was he who had his son listen to his soundtrack. The son wears it down to the weft, knows the songs by heart. Having become a director, he dreamed throughout his career of directing a musical (he only did so in the opening scene of the second “Indiana Jones”, a succinct but magnificent tribute to the choreographies of the master of the genre, Busby Berkeley ). His version of the musical will remain in gestation for almost ten years. He who wanted to be able to take charge of everything entrusted the screenplay to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, with whom he had already worked on “Munich” and “Lincoln”. The latter therefore left the Broadway production in 1957, the libretto of which was signed by Arthur Laurents.

In 2011, Laurents said: “The innovative and somewhat crazy idea of ​​’West Side Story’ was to evoke social issues, violence, assaults, rape and crime, in a musical. And that the public would be ready to pay to see it sung, danced and accompanied by an orchestra. ” So, an almost political film? Spielberg does not say anything else today: “This story is inspired by ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but it is also a very relevant allegory of what is happening along our borders and of the actions taken in the aim to reject all those who are not white. It’s a big part of American history. »Its dense, dark, violent version is more like a musical drama than a comedy. Spielberg is more attached to the poverty of East Harlem than to the glitz of Broadway. As New York is barely recovering from a pandemic that marks its still uncrowded streets and litany of businesses that have gone out of business, Spielberg’s film has had to postpone its release for a year. Yet another revival of the musical, an avant-garde way and clad with video screens, saw its promising career nipped in the bud at the beginning of 2020 by the closure of New York theaters. It will never resume. However, the power of the subject remains intact. “West Side Story” seems to have given wings to the filmmaker. Rarely has its staging been so aerial and liberated. A masterful film, following in the footsteps of a masterpiece to offer a new one.

“West Side Story”, in theaters December 8, 2021, *****

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In the footsteps of “West Side Story”