Withered on Arrival, Dead at the Box Office
The nominations have been announced: welcome to Oscar season! Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story nabbed seven. I call that a gesture of sentimentality.
Before last December’s premiere, my musical theater friends (of which I have several) celebrated the reboot of this American classic. My response to their excitement was: why?
Movie remakes are common. A Star is Born three times over, and each iteration has its merits. There’s also money to made remaking a classic. The original West Side Story won a whopping ten Oscars. It was also box office gold: recouping its $6.5 million budget more than six times over (worldwide receipts: $44 million). Surely we are ready for a dazzling yet culturally sensitive update.
Ahhh, I never thought so. And judging from the tepid audience response the film has received ($62 million worldwide on a production budget of $100 million two full months after release), neither do many others.
Here’s my take on why:
American film took a sharp turn circa 1970, flipping from a medium that specialized in escape to one that held up a mirror to reality. All of the flashiest movie musicals, from The Great Ziegfeld through West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and culminating in Oliver! premiered prior to 1970. Each capitalized on the silver screen’s enormous scale to create worlds so ecstatic that mere speech was insufficient. Our heroes simply had to burst into song.
Once Hollywood caught its New Wave, such exuberance didn’t fly.
Big-time musicals still churn magic on stage: theater audiences are eager to suspend belief. But film is too prescriptive a medium to accommodate the ambiguity of characters who are simultaneously like us (mere human beings) and yet not like us (when confronted by trauma or delight, they sing). Movie-worlds are very specific. They either reinforce the reality we already know, and hopefully deepen our appreciation of it, or—like most blockbusters—they provide escape to fully realized alternatives. That’s why the few great movie musicals made since 1970 (1972’s Cabaret and 2002’s Chicago) incorporate songs as commentary on the characters interior lives or society’s tumultuous times. What Rogers and Hammerstein’s ground breaking Oklahoma! accomplished on stage in 1943—integrating music as direct extension of the action—comes off as odd, even silly, on today’s screen.
Given how movie audiences have changed, Spielberg’s West Side Story battles uphill before the opening credits even begin. Hoodlums dancing through New York City streets in 2021 simply don’t elicit the same delight they did sixty years ago.
Unfortunately, once the credits begin, the film establishes a further tone of doom. The original West Side Story begins with a bright orangey-red screen. Vertical lines pop in rhythm with the upbeat overture, then morph into the Manhattan skyline as viewed from the statue of Liberty. We, the audience, are immigrants arriving in hope after a long voyage. The camera shifts up and over the city’s grid and flies us over the island, revealing the promise of America, eventually landing, softly, into the territory of the Jets.
Spielberg’s West Side Story also opens with aerial footage: demolition wrought by urban renewal. Similarly, we land on Jet’s turf. But before one single Shark appears, any promise, any hope is futile: the neighborhood is already lost to powers greater than either of these two-bit gangs.
West Side Story, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is a tragedy no matter how interpreted. By the end, most of the major characters are dead. But the tenor of the original film, like most musicals, is mostly upbeat. We know the sparring between the Sharks and the Jets is petty; that it will lead to no good. But at least they’re fighting with intention over something they believe is worth having. In the recent version, the gangs are neutered from the start. Forces beyond the screen have already won, so there’s literally no one for the audience to root for. I credit screenwriter Tony Kushner for the hollow ache ag the center of this film. The language in the script is beautiful, the insights deep, yet as in any Kushner endeavor, the overall affect a downer.
There are two disparate audiences for West Side Story 2.0. People who saw the original and want to see how today’s masters handle the same material. And people too young to know West Side Story as a cultural phenomenon. The latter group, by and large, find the story irrelevant, and have stayed away. The older group, who showed up as a dismal dozen for the Christmastime matinee I attended, find it all too relevant if only because so little has changed. The prejudices, the violence, the injustices of the 1961 film are all still with us: made uglier by our media-saturated age. A movie-goer above a certain age doesn’t actually watch the film. We analyze it, comparing frames and dialogue and phrasing with an original we know so well.
There are many things about Spielberg’s West Side Story that are better than the original. Bringing “America” off of the rooftop and into the street makes sense. Setting “I Feel Pretty” among an after-hours cleaning crew cavorting through Gimbal’s is terrific. Casting Rita Moreno as ‘Doc’ is an inspired idea. Every scene with her throbs with energy, even when she delivers the loneliest rendition of “Somewhere” ever conceived.
A few of Spielberg’s moves work less well. As a director allergic to serenity, Spielberg litters Tony’s rendition of “Maria” with visual distractions. Trust me Steve, the audience simply wants to hear Ansel Elgort deliver the goods, which he does beautifully. And to whomever decided to jump from the deaths at the rumble directly to the Gimbal’s girls: bad shift.
The new West Side Story is a bountiful kit of parts: great scenes, good acting, excellent singing, lush orchestrations, phenomenal dancing. But ultimately, the pieces do not come together to create a vital work of art. The ‘updates’ strip away the fantasy elements that make musicals such delight, without being bold enough to forge an independent vision. The movie begins with a bleak view of the world, and despite snazzy dancing and colorful skirts, ends on the same drab note.
One of my most enthusiastic musical buddies claimed, “They will be talking about this movie one hundred years from now!” Without doubt, we’ll be celebrating the 1961 in version in 2061. But Spielberg’s decaying Manhattan in 2121? I doubt it.