Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021, Part 3

West Side Story.

The musical has always been among my top five favorite film genres, and 2021 is the year Hollywood at last remembered how to make them.

I will forever contend that the death knell of the movie musical sounded when Hollywood ceased to seek out and nurture talented singers and dancers and instead started to give leading roles in musicals to big name stars, regardless of their ability to carry a tune beyond four beats or execute a simple buck-and-wing. When non-singing, non-dancing Marlon Brando was cast as Sky Masterson in 1955’s Guys and Dolls, and a key song from the Broadway show as cut and replaced with a weaker tune to accommodate the star’s limited vocal range, the downward spiral began, with only occasional bright spots (among them 1961’s West Side Story) popping up along the slow descent. Recent financial successes like Mamma Mia and critical successes like La La Land only serve, for me, to illustrate the depths to which the genre has fallen. In a musical, the songs should be highlights, the moments when an audience’s emotions are most powerfully stirred. But in Mamma Mia, which serves up such horrors as Pierce Brosnan singing (two numbers!) and Meryl Streep frolicking, the numbers only serve to make us roll our eyes, while in La La Land, the songs are the dreariest moments, shining a light on Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s inadequacy as musical performers. These two films fail to stir the slightest emotion other than cynicism and boredom, because none of the players has the slightest clue how to sell a song. By and large, it’s been up to animated films to keep the musical’s flame alive during this Dark Age.

But earlier this year, just when I was ready to despair of ever seeing a soul-stirring big-screen live action musical again, along came In the Heights, with music and lyrics by Broadway’s wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda. The only widely known name in the cast is Miranda himself, who plays a minor role; even in his case (of course), songs and dances are not sacrificed on the altar of celebrity. Everyone involved with this film, including the cinematographer, knows what a musical should look and sound like, and it is on all accounts a stunning experience. It deserves its own blog post, but it’s been several months since this movie dazzled me, and I would need to watch it again in order to give it a properly detailed review.

Far fresher in my mind is a recent release, West Side Story, which hits some very different notes from In the Heights. While it does touch on some serious themes, In the Heights stands out in my memory as an explosion of joy, a celebration of community. By contrast, West Side Story is a tragedy, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which, as anyone who passed ninth-grade English could tell you, does not end well. With the “houses both alike in dignity” represented by a pair of rival street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, it asks its audience to make an emotional investment in characters we know to be doomed. If done well, it will break your heart. And this version of West Side Story is, to me at least, done very well.

I am not a West Side Story purist. I like and appreciate the 1961 film, but I don’t find it to be an unassailable masterpiece beyond all possible improvement. It’s a product of its time. Of the three actors who play the principal Puerto Rican characters, Maria, Bernardo, and Anita, only Rita Moreno (Anita) is actually Puerto Rican, and she and George Chakiris (Bernardo), Natalie Wood (Maria), and the other performers playing the Sharks were made to wear the same dark make-up so that all the Puerto Rican characters would have the same skin tone, denying the racial and ethnic diversity in the Puerto Rican community. Granted, Natalie Wood, despite not sharing her character’s ethnic background, gives a strong performance that reaches devastating levels in her final scene, but Richard Beymer’s Tony is so pretty-boy bland that she has nothing to work with in terms of creating chemistry; as a result, the romance that should be the movie’s heart becomes its most underwhelming feature, and Wood, good as she is, is overshadowed by such forces of nature as Moreno, Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn.

Another weakness was pointed out to me by my husband as we were on our way home from seeing the remake. I asked if he’d seen the earlier version, and he admitted he’d never watched it from beginning to end, because he’d always found the Jets and the Sharks too clean-cut in their appearance and movements to be believable as street toughs. I hadn’t considered that before, but he has a point. The actors might have been convincing in 1961, but they’re less so to a modern eye.

Steven Spielberg’s remake addresses every one of those issues.

First of all, from the opening moment we can see the grittiness and the current of violence in the world the characters inhabit. Grime is everywhere; dust permeates the air. The streets down which the Jets and the Sharks dance in the 1961 movie are swept and deserted; in Spielberg’s film, those same streets are choked with traffic, with people constantly knocking against each other. The Jets and the Sharks are of a piece with this chaos, and the actors bring a feral energy to every move they make, even when they’re dancing and singing. “Someone gets in our way, someone don’t feel so well,” boast the Jets. I know I wouldn’t want to get in these guys’ way.

Second, the Puerto Rican characters are all played by Latino actors, which gives them a degree of authenticity the 1961 film couldn’t manage. Moreover, their community isn’t racially homogenized; actress Ariana du Bose, who plays Anita, is black. She’s terrific, by the way, imbuing the character with hope, humor, and fun — which makes what happens to her near the movie’s end all the more devastating.

Then there’s the love story. Some critics don’t agree with me, but I think it works this time around. Tony (Ansel Elgort), so dull in the ’61 version, is given some shading here. He has a backstory to explain his desire to distance himself from the Jets, and it adds a sense of urgency to his love for Maria, since she’s the ray of hope that shines upon him, the force that, as he says, stops him in his long fall off a cliff. Their relationship is his lifeline. It also helps that he shares a good bit of screen time with Valentina (Rita Moreno herself, also an executive producer), who runs the drug store where he works after her husband, Doc, has died. Their scenes together radiate tenderness, warmth, and humor, and they make Tony easier to engage with and root for.

Rachel Zegler, as Maria, has more difficult shoes to fill, but for me, she ends up being the movie’s biggest find. She’s pictorially exquisite, a bit like a young Catherine Zeta-Jones, and she uses her eyes to convey the character’s earnest innocence, as well as the conflict within her between her loyalty to her brother, the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez, not quite as gorgeous as Chakiris but still an intense and powerful presence) and her love for Tony and her desire for a future different from the one Bernardo wants for her. Also, unlike Wood, Zegler does her own singing. Her bright, clear soprano voice rings rich with feeling. She, more than anyone else, will make you never want to hear the likes of Emma Stone or Pierce Brosnan attempt a musical number again.

Sadly, West Side Story isn’t doing as well at the box office as I wish it were; perhaps its bittersweet melancholy and its inescapably gloomy ending aren’t quite what the crowds flooding theaters to see Spider-Man: No Way Home are looking for. But it just might, like its 1961 predecessor, win some love on Oscar night, pointing the way for future musicals with actors skilled in dance and song.

Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021, Part 2

Ghosts.

M*A*SH* is one of my top five television shows of all time, with The Muppet Show right alongside it, but as a general rule, sitcoms aren’t my thing. I enjoyed them well enough in my youth, but these days, a sitcom has to work hard to win me over. It has to convince me that it’s not following the nowadays-admired Seinfeld/It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia model, by showing me characters who can grow and change and don’t have to be mean in order to be funny. 2021 saw the conclusion of one such sitcom that managed to work its way into my heart, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But no sooner had the lights gone out on that show’s final episode than a new show emerged to fill the void — CBS’s Ghosts, a rare example of an American sitcom adapted from a British original that succeeds on its own terms.

The premise is simple enough: a young couple, Jay and Samantha (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Rose McIver), move into a 200+ year old mansion Samantha has inherited, with an eye to turning it into a profitable bed-and-breakfast. However, the ghosts who haunt the place, a varied lot representing different epochs in American history, don’t like that plan. When one of their efforts to scare the couple results in a head injury for Samantha, she finds she can now see, hear, and interact with the spectral residents, and the ghosts are so thrilled at their new opportunity to communicate with someone living that they drop their objections to the bed-and-breakfast. Samantha becomes a de facto member of the ghosts’ found family. All this is accomplished within the pilot episode. Subsequent episodes show how she and Jay manage to share their home with the eclectic posse of phantoms, and how they forge unlikely bonds, and how, via their new channel to the outside world, the ghosts discover things about themselves and their lives they never knew before.

McIver, whom I loved in the underrated iZombie, is as “normal” as her role demands, yet she’s still smart, funny, and engaging. All the same, the ghosts themselves are the show’s biggest draw — it’s named for them, after all — and every member of this ensemble is an interesting person who is more than they seem. The oldest ghost, tough Viking Thorfinn (Devan Long), has a history of crooning lullabies to the very young children who have slept in the house, including proper Victorian lady Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky); the babes, who are more spirit-sensitive than their elders, are comforted by the warmth in his deep voice and don’t care that his lyrics involve crushing enemies. Revolutionary War officer Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), with his veneer of stuffy hauteur, has to confront his attraction to the British officer he accidentally killed (John Hartman). Scoutmaster Pete (Richie Moriarty), a genuine straight arrow killed in an archery accident, must move past his anger and grief when he learns that his wife cheated on him with the friend she’s now married to. Roaring ’20s jazz singer Alberta (Danielle Pinnock) is obsessed with fame, but her longing to be known springs less from narcissism than from the earnest hope that she might have made a difference in a racist world. Even Trevor (Asher Grodman), the “most recently dead” who literally passed away with his pants off, gets to be more than just a smarmy corporate lecher, when he shows his fellow phantoms one of his favorite films from his lifetime, Ghostbusters, only to discover the movie lands a little differently if you’re a ghost. There isn’t a single character on the whole show that I’m not eager to see more of.

One more word of praise is due the living characters: I appreciate the way Jay and Samantha’s relationship is handled. The fact that she can interact with the ghosts and he can’t could have resulted in episode after episode of hackneyed tension as he tries to talk her out of her “craziness.” But all this is dealt and then dispensed with in the pilot episode. After that, he simply accepts that ghosts are “living” in his house and Samantha can see them; he comes to like having them around as much as she does. Even though they don’t always agree, these two clearly have a marriage based on trust and respect, and that’s a delight to see.