Tag Archives: Rita Moreno

New York City Serenade

West Side Story

by George Wolf

This week on Twitter, director Edgar Wright reminded anyone doubting Steven Spielberg’s way around a musical number to revisit “Anything Goes” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Okay, point taken, but West Side Story? That’s a big step up.

It is, and he makes it in stride.

Right from the opening minutes, Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. Their threats of violence are more palpable this time, as Riff (Mike Faist, an award-worthy standout) and his New York boys want to settle their turf war with Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Puerto Ricans once and for all.

At the dance that night, the first meeting between tragic lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler, a newcomer with an amazing voice who beat out thousands in open auditions) now happens under the gym bleachers, the first in a series of subtle and not-so-subtle updates that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich, Angels in America) employ to deepen the narrative impact.

“Dear Officer Krupke” seems more organic in the station house, “America” (led by an irresistible Ariana DeBose as Anita) is given more room to move across the west side city streets, while a department store full of mannequins depicting white suburban dreams proves an ironically joyful setting for Maria and her co-workers’ buoyant reading of “I Feel Pretty.”

And from one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothy precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow. Stellar efforts from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Adam Stockhausen turn the everyday drab of hanging laundry and fabric remnants into an elegant playground for Spielberg’s camera eye.

In short, it looks freaking fantastic.

It sounds pretty great, too, even beyond the genius of Bernstein’s melodies and Sondheim’s lyrics. Because Spielberg couples his appropriate and welcome diversity of cast with a complete lack of subtitles, rightly putting the opposing cultures on equal narrative footing, and bringing more depth to the cries of “speak English!”

And as the gang fight turns deadly, all of the stakes are embraced more tightly. The offhand bigotry of Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll, terrific as always) is more casually cruel, the identity conflict of Anybodys (Iris Menas) feels more defined, while Anita’s fateful visit to Doc’s store – now run by Valentina (expect another Oscar nod for the incredible Rita Moreno) – plainly calls it like it always was.

Then, as his (almost) parting shot, Spielberg unveils his grandest revision, a move nearly as bold and risky as the one Richard Attenborough face-planted with in 1985’s A Chorus Line.

By altering the context of one of the most emotional songs, Attenborough showed he didn’t know, or didn’t care, about what the show was trying to say. Spielberg, though, gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.

Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.

Hey You Guys!

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It

by George Wolf

By now, we can probably guess your age by how you first came to know Rita Moreno.

Singin’ in the Rain? The King and I? West Side Story? The Electric Company? The Rockford Files? Oz? Jane the Virgin? Carmen Sandiego? The One Day at a Time reboot? Even if you just got here, there’s the recent In The Heights Twitter feud and if you’re on your way, it’s almost time for West Side Story again!

The point is, Rita is among the most legendary of entertainment legends, and Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It is a completely captivating tour through an iconic, trailblazing life.

A Puerto Rico native, Rosita Alverio emigrated to New York with her mother at age 5 – and never saw her native family again. “Rita” made her dancing debut at age 6 in a Greenwich Village nightclub, and by 16 she had landed a contract with MGM Studios.

Through countless “shut up and be sexy” roles that prompted self-loathing, to Emmy, Oscar, Grammy and Tony Awards, an abortion, a suicide attempt, marriage and family, political activism and therapy, her 90th year has found Rita to be a fulfilled, thankful survivor.

And beyond the treasure trove of archival footage, home movies and interview praises from the likes of Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (also one of the film’s producers), director Mariem Pérez Riera finds the most resonance in the personal journey told by Rita herself.

Looking back on the obstacles she faced and the successes and failures of her life and career, Moreno displays a hard-won self-worth and an honest self-awareness, one that – as evidenced by her In The Heights second thoughts – she continues to probe.

This is not just an entertaining Hollywood story, it’s an inspiring American story and a hopeful human story. It’s just a damn good story, from someone worthy of celebrating while she’s still here.