By Jim Poling
I’m not one for rewatching a movie, no matter how good it might have been. Especially if it is a remake.
I made an exception recently and ordered up the 2021 remake of West Side Story, the classic tale of gang rivalry and young love in 1957 New York City. I did it because most remakes are bad, and I wanted to see just how bad this one was.
What a surprise! This remake is every bit as good as the original, which starred Natalie Wood, Richard Breymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn.
In some ways, it is even better, which is not a surprise because it was directed by Steven Spielberg, who gave us blockbuster successes such as E.T., Saving Private Ryan, Jaws and Schindler’s List. Spielberg’s version is more inclusive and more representative of today’s world.
The original West Side Story had a core message: in a world torn by poverty, cultural differences and outright racism there is hope that love can overcome all.
The West Side Story 2021 remake continues that message, adding a couple of its own while putting the classic Romeo and Juliet story into today’s American social context.
One is that today’s road to achieving the American dream is more strewn than ever with hardship and tragedy. Gun violence, racial hatred and decaying urban structure stand in the way of building better lives, especially for immigrants.
However, hope for a better America comes from the performances of two young newcomer actors – Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort who were 18 and 25 when the movie was filmed.
Interestingly, both young people, who star as Maria and Tony, do their own singing. In the original 1961 film, ghost voices sang for stars Natalie Wood and Richard Breymer.
Probably the biggest change in the 2021 movie version is the reappearance of Rita Moreno, who played the vivacious Anita in the original. She returns as the elderly Valentina, widow of Doc, owner of the drugstore where members of the Jets youth gang hang out.
At 90, Moreno sings the powerful Somewhere!, which dreams of a time and place in which people with differences live and love together in peace.
Moreno’s reappearance 60 years after the first movie was filmed is a lesson for all: Don’t toss anything aside just because it is old. Old things and old people still have much to offer.
Valentina’s Somewhere! offers hope for change, while knowing she will not live to see it. She is near the end of her life but sings of hope for the young people who are struggling to make good lives for themselves.
Someone has been singing Somewhere! on stage, in film or in a recording studio for 60-plus years. The lyrics of the tune are haunting, but hopeful:
“There’s a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us somewhere
We’ll find a new way of living
We’ll find a way of forgiving
Sadly, despite all the passing years and all the singing, we still haven’t found that “somewhere.” Hatred, racism and violence remain a big part of our lives. North American gun violence is totally out of control. There have been roughly 500 mass shootings in the United States so far this year.
We Canadians consider ourselves much purer than the Americans. However, Statistics Canada has reported that police-reported crimes motivated by race or ethnic hatred increased 80 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Black, Asian and Indigenous people were the main targets of the 1,594 Canadian hate crimes during that period.
Instead of finding a new way of living, we are well into a new time in which sane centre-based politics is being taken over by insane extremism, on both the right and the left. Fact-based information and intelligent discussion are being replaced by misinformation and disinformation.
West Side Story is a sad story that ends tragically without the “somewhere” being found.
However, like the two young lovers and the elderly widow Valentina, we can’t stop hoping that it’s out there and one day our crippled societies will find it.