Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend
A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
When West Side Story made its Broadway premiere on the night of 26 September 1957, not all the critics were sold on this modern adaptation of Romeo And Juliet, reimagined as gang conflict in the Upper West Side of New York City. But the all-important New York Times, which could make or break a show with a single review, was ecstatic about Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, and the choreography of Jerome Robbins.
It’s the original stage version of West Side Story that Steven Spielberg’s dazzling new cinematic take on the musical is a homage to (general release, 10 December), rather than to Robert Wise’s 1961 movie version. Spielberg’s film draws deep on the original well of late 1950s energy: the crackling of juvenile delinquency, bigotry and death, alongside the softer themes of love, friendship and the in-jokes that bind gangs together.
While the core theme of tribal division and its price is more resonant than ever in the age of social media and digital hatred, the new movie is still set in 1958 and does not seek to turn West Side Story into a leaden commentary on the age of Trump, political division, and nativism.
Instead, Spielberg extends a respect to the Latinx cast that was conspicuously lacking in the 1961 version (in which many of the performers, including Wood, wore makeup to darken their skin). As the director told IGN, he also decided not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue ‘out of respect for the inclusivity of our intentions to hire a totally Latinx cast to play the Sharks’ boys and girls.’
In similar spirit, Maria’s ‘I Feel Pretty’ is transplanted to Gimbels department store, where the number acquires a new edge, sung by a Puerto Rican girl in a citadel of retail whiteness (where she works as a cleaner).
Likewise, the character of Anybodys, played by Susan Oakes in the 1961 movie as a tomboy who wants to join the Jets, is clearly transgender in Spielberg’s film, as performed by Iris Menas.
For a director as besotted by genre and film history, it is perhaps most surprising that Spielberg has waited until he is 74 to release a musical. But just as the Indiana Jones movies have revived and updated the great matinee serials of Spielberg’s youth, and Jaws and Jurassic Park reinvented, in their different ways, the monster movie, so West Side Story breathes fresh life into the classic Hollywood musical without descending into mere nostalgia. The modernisation strategy is much less radical than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s in Hamilton and In The Heights (see Creative Sensemaker, 17 June). But it is deft, beautifully executed, and hugely enjoyable.
And what greater tribute than the blessing of Stephen Sondheim? Before his death on 26 November, the giant of American musicals said of Spielberg’s movie: ‘It’s really terrific. Everybody go. You’ll really have a good time. And for those of you who know the show, there’s going to be some real surprises.’
He was right. If a film can, in the words of the song, persuade you that ‘what was just a world is a star’, this one will.
Vinyl for Tortoises
We’ve teamed up with VinylBox to offer a free vinyl set for Creative Sensemaker readers. I’ve selected eight of my favourite records and you’ll get a box with two of them – it’s lucky dip – when you take out any subscription with VinylBox. Lady Gaga, Scissor Sisters and Mary J Blige are three of the picks. Go to their website and use the code TORTOISEFREE to redeem the offer.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
The Hand Of God (selected cinemas, Netflix, 15 December)
A film of two halves – aptly – that combines the traditional tropes of the teen coming of age movie with subtler explorations of family, isolation, and vocational fixation. Set in 1980s Naples, Paolo Sorrentino’s most autobiographical film to date is also his best, tracing the circuitous path into early adulthood followed by 17-year-old Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti).
The film’s first half is launched amid a blaze of rumour that Diego Maradona is joining SSC Napoli – the title referring to the Argentine superstar’s notorious goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals – and the rough-and-tumble of Fabietto’s family life (Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo excel as his parents). The second half of the film is much more introspective, for reasons I shall not spoil. What binds it all together is Fabietto’s obsession with movies – ‘Reality, I don’t like it anymore. That’s why I want to do cinema’ – and the role in his life of Maradona as a symbol of passion, nostalgia, and much else. A film of great depth and emotional power.
Black British Lives Matter: A Clarion Call For Equality by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder
At the KITE festival launch party at the Tabernacle in west London on 25 November, Marcus Ryder, one of the editors of this excellent volume, and Leroy Logan, who contributes a fine chapter on policing, explained why the book is more necessary than ever. As Ryder put it: ‘it’s no good going to the gym if you then binge on donuts.’ In other words – mere expressions of good intentions and acts of protest don’t amount to much unless you see them translated into practical measures. The essays collected here – by writers ranging from Kit de Waal, Lenny Henry, David Olusoga, and Nadine White to Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Colin Grant and Kwame Kwei-Armah – are both a reproach and an inspiration. Essential reading.
Licht der Welt (A Christmas Promenade) by Christiane Karg
As Jonas Kaufmann has shown, collections of Christmas songs by great operatic soloists have much to recommend them as a festive alternative to pop compilations and recordings of carol services at King’s College, Cambridge. In this collection, Christiane Karg, accompanied by pianist Gerold Huber and the Bavarian Radio Chorus, sings classics and rarities by 17 composers (Ravel, Massenet, Rossini) in five languages. As her collection of Lieder by Mahler demonstrated to triumphant effect last year, Karg’s soprano is at the height of its powers, and she strikes exactly the right balance in these performances between enchantment and rigour, never slipping into mere sentimentality. Recommended – especially if you have already had enough of Mariah Carey and Slade.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner