John, Paul, Steve and Rita

Very big deals, cinematically speaking, have just overtaken our screens.

For me, it was the release of “West Side Story” 2.0. The long-awaited film had me leaving the warm house to walk down to the Rose Theatre in Port Townsend. Wearing my mask throughout, I watched the series of trailers plus the 153-minute main attraction.

As for my mate Phil, “The Beatles: Get Back” was the must-see event from Disney Plus. The documentary by Peter Jackson, he of “Lord of the Rings” fame, runs a mere 468 minutes.

“I know how this ends. What am I doing here?” I asked myself as the 2021 “West Side’s” music swaggered in.

The story, after all, is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions and provenance. The original Robert Wise movie entered my my living room on TV in the 1970s, to my wondering teenage eyes, with my mother informing me the 1961 film was based on “Romeo and Juliet.” A couple of years later, I read that play in English class and saw Franco Zeffirelli’s movie, the one with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Not quite as memorable as “West Side.”

Steven Spielberg’s remake leaps from the screen, a glorious showcase of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. The New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck, 34, is the choregrapher who takes on the giant challenge of updating Jerome Robbins’ orchestral dances.

Experiencing it all in a theater, seeing the street ballet on the big screen, I didn’t want to breathe, lest I miss a note or a step.

As we moviegoers sat mesmerized, the camera roamed across a slate gray and midnight blue Manhattan, taking us on a tour of a city undergoing an earth-shaking transition. Smoke. Shimmer. And on a morning after the lovers meet, a rose-pink sky alight with possibility.

Both “West Sides,” 60 years apart, are about youth, hate, love, immigration and brutality. Spielberg amplifies everything, then adds a sharper focus on gentrification and class warfare. He also faces what really happened in the scene involving Anita (Ariana DeBose) and the Jets after Bernardo (David Alvarez) is murdered.

To deliver the message, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner — in one of several strokes of brilliance — directs the spotlight onto Rita Moreno.

The original movie’s Anita is now 90 years old, and you had better listen up to what she says.

In the 2021 “West Side Story,” Moreno portrays a new character: Valentina, the Puerto Rican widow and voice of wisdom. She is made of steel. She’s also executive producer of the film.

In this opera of a movie, with its bloodshed and bone-stirring music, it is Moreno’s offering of “Somewhere,” more a prayer than a song, that provides us with hope.

“The Beatles: Get Back” ends with sorrow, too.

The band, on a London rooftop, gives its last performance in January 1969. We knew that going in. So what kept us watching?

I think it’s both the art being made and the moments of human electricity. Seeing a beaming Billy Preston sit in with the Fab Four, transforming the songs on “Let It Be,” and listening to John Lennon rap through “I’ve Got a Feeling”? It doesn’t get better than that.

These two works of art — one a musical fantasy, one a documentary — are jammed full of joy and sadness.

They end with death, but what a ride in the meantime.


Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] Her column runs the first and third Wednesdays of the month; the next will appear Jan. 5.

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