That aching lyric of love was set to music some sixty years ago and has lost none of its power, or pain. I saw the new Steven Spielberg adaptation of West Side Story this weekend, which harnesses the transportive force of art with astonishing completeness. It lifts, heals and delights the mind, heart and eye, all scorched daily by a news feed which burns through hope and life with a seemingly unquenchable malevolence.
I photographed Leonard Bernstein numerous times, and always loved his company, including the sheer volcanic happenstance of his moods. Camera at the ready always with Lenny! His mercurial spirit could express in the most sudden, impromptu and picture worthy of ways. I always called him maestro, out of deference. And I knew, always, I was standing in the glow of genius.
I grew up with these songs. How can anyone create this music in their head? How can you take the ancient themes of love, loss, need for acceptance, human pride, and the desperate yearning for a place in this world, and wrap musical notes around all of it? The music has the crackle of hate, the energy of a street carnival, the delicate lilt of new found love and the dramatic foreboding of certain doom. How does the score pack the cathartic punch of immediacy even though it is bound to an operatic approach conceived of in the 50’s? It feels new and needed all over again.
Married to the Sondheim lyrics, the score meshes with newly rendered and utterly exuberant dance numbers (the original 1961 movie was directed by sublime choreographer Jerome Robbins) and exquisite production design. Lush nuance and emotional detail are all captured in voluptuous light and angles by the peerless cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who once said, “I think there is more to cinematography than talking about cameras and film stock. It’s like talking to a costume designer about what kind of sewing machine they use.” Makes me smile.
The lyrics, in these days of raw language, might seem corny to some, but to me, have lost none of their bite or wit. As the Jets and the Sharks face off, the mood and pitch of the music can be as dangerous as a dark alley, then soar to confrontation and crescendo, while the shouted lyrics have the angry snap of a bear trap. When the songs encircle Tony and Maria, words and notes ascend, like the delicate tendrils of a plant seeking light. Their love will find no nourishment or tolerance on the mean streets they walk.
To me, this is Spielberg at the apotheosis of his astonishing skills. Genius is a word bandied about in our culture far too frequently nowadays…. but this is the stuff of genius. This is an emotional steamroller. And the gift of gifts! Rita Moreno is back in front of a camera as Valentina. She won an Oscar as Anita in 1962, and now, Spielberg wisely casts her as the voice of experience and grace. She is infinitely lovely, and possessed of a melancholy wisdom. She holds the camera. Thankfully, it knows to linger. Her shop, Tony’s refuge, is luminescent, graced and glowing with light.
Spielberg describes it as a film he had to make. Now. “Divisions between un-likeminded people are as old as time itself,” he said in an interview.
As old as time itself…. yes, true, but now, hatred and fear are metastasized by the immediacy of the internet. The fire rises in Ukraine. Exclusion, hate and the despisement of difference spew globally.
Rallied by Ami Vitale, Nat Geo photographers of every era have offered prints for a flash sale, to be acted on quickly. 100% of the profits go to Direct Relief for medical assistance in Ukraine. Here is the link…..
And…. give your heart and eyes a break. Turn off the news, even for a short while. Listen and look at the West Side Story. Call it a respite from the storm, call it the power of art. Call it a good movie. Let the music, lyrics, exuberance, innocence, and the healing nature of love, doomed, but resplendently powerful, take you away, if only briefly.