Why West Side Story should win the best picture

Of the many inspirations that can be taken from the 2021 adaptation of West Side Story, one ought to be to start with a bang. So here’s an endorsement from Guillermo del Toro. “WSS is intoxicating, Heisenberg-level pure, uncut cinema.”

For those who haven’t read the full thread from the director of Nightmare Alley on why his rival for best picture is so compelling, please do. Watching an artist genuinely rhapsodise about art is always worth the admission. But the central thrust of his argument, building out from a critique of a single scene, is this: Steven Spielberg’s film is a brilliant synthesis of the essential qualities of cinema and, as a result, is a reminder of what the art form can achieve.

You could effectively rest your case there, but let’s indulge just a little longer. Indulgence, glory and spectacle being intrinsic to the movie after all – and those first moments a case in point. Adjusting to the screen, viewers may struggle to do anything more than let their eyes goggle as the camera rolls low across rubble, sweeps vertiginously to the vantage point of a crane, then dips to study the circumference of a wrecking ball before, aquí está, out pops a Jet from a trapdoor hidden in the dirt.

There are umpteen other moments like it, but that’s the one that worked for me. It’s bold, it’s clever (not only does it end on a surprise, but the shot sets up the context of the story too) and after its grey, metallic start, it is suffused with bright light.

That’s another thing that makes this movie a marvel: the light and the colour. While much of the movie was shot on location in New York, the city feels more like California, with the kind of rich and warming light that nurtures dreams (helped by a generous use of lens flare). When the Puerto Rican ensemble perform America and the light bounces off the colourful costumery – in particular the skirts – a carnival ensues. It’s difficult to think of a moment more joyous in recent cinema, and in a song that is centred on conflict.

So there’s the film-making craft, and the sensory joy. Then there’s the performances, especially Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno’s, and the punched-up choreography of Justin Peck that doesn’t imitate sex and violence but carries them within its every movement. There’s all that and lots more besides, without touching on the Bernstein/Sondheim genius that makes everything else possible.

But to end on a serious note, as the film does, the final word must go to the way in which a story first told in 1957 makes itself feel contemporary in 2022. In its casting, West Side Story corrects a historic wrong that should never have been made in the first place. Its decision, however, not to use subtitles for the frequent (if snappy) Spanish dialogue is more welcome, progressive and wise, as it expands the experience for every English- as well as Spanish-speaking viewer.

Those are the most direct ways in which West Side Story engages with the racial context of its story (one chilling scene involving Anita aside). Instead, the politics of the film are more about sex and class: the men seek to exert control over women, just as they are unable to exert any influence on the world around them. West Side Story does not seek to exonerate them for this behaviour but it does point to the systemic constraints – namely poverty – which perpetuate the pain. It feels like another good reason to boost the movie’s audience by giving it an award.

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