I liked Steven Spielberg’s emotionally energized, visually bustling “West Side Story” just fine, though I’m not as over the moon about it as some of my critical colleagues. There’s an ecstatic tone wafting through the reviews. I raise the issue because you would have expected that collective hosanna to be one of many things that inspired people to go out and see the movie.
The shocking disappointment of “West Side Story’s” opening-weekend box-office take — a total of just $10.5 million, $1 million less than what “In the Heights” made and only $3 million more than “Dear Evan Hansen,” and both of those were considered lackluster performers — can be chalked up to the litany of explanations that everyone is giving it. The adaptation of a 64-year-old Broadway musical, offered up as a vigorous remake of the beloved 1961 Oscar-winning film, is a movie whose success was always going to depend on the turnout of older viewers — and during the pandemic, a good portion of that audience, ruled by safety concerns and with streaming at its disposal, has been choosing to stay home. Sure, there were hopes that younger folks would show up to see “West Side Story.” But the numbers only proved what many have long believed: that Gen Z doesn’t much like musicals, certainly not classic older musicals (though some of them dug “The Greatest Showman,” and with good reason). Without tapping into that powerful youth demo, a 2021 movie is operating at a major disadvantage.
Yet even knowing all that, the returns on “West Side Story” were an eyebrow-raiser. Even when you consider all the factors working against mass movie attendance in the age of COVID, there was a wish — and a solid if not quite certain expectation — that a musical this grand, this entrenched in the bones of the culture, reimagined by an artist with a name as mythical as Steven Spielberg, was a gotta-see-it proposition, one that could transcend the usual pandemic stumbling blocks. Surely families would go!
It’s a depressing fact of our moviegoing moment that when it comes to prestige dramas pitched to adults, one title after another (“Belfast,” “Spencer,” “King Richard”) has drastically underperformed. Yet one such film has, in fact, succeeded: “House of Gucci,” which actually had to fight its way through a blizzard of critical derision (all of it shortsighted, in my opinion). It may still be an uphill climb for that movie to make a profit (though the international returns should help), but what’s undeniable is that “House of Gucci” found an audience. Were they all 28-year-old Lady Gaga fans? Sorry, but I don’t think that’s the only explanation for why the movie has connected. Adults have shown up; the numbers indicate that with the right film, reaching that audience is still possible. Besides, if Lady Gaga is the not-so-secret weapon of “House of Gucci’s” success, that still begs a question: Why couldn’t the name Steven Spielberg be the not-so-secret weapon of “West Side Story’s”?
To find the answer to that, I think you have to look at why the remake of “West Side Story” exists in the first place, what its appeal was always intended to be, and why that appeal, as envisioned by Spielberg, may have evaporated. As a critic, I can’t pretend to be inside a filmmaker’s head, yet reading the intuitions of directors is part of what critics do; it’s part of how we interpret popular culture. And my reading of Spielberg is that over the last 20 years, he has worked, numerous times now, in a self-styled obsessive genre that I would call the Metaphorical Topical Statement.
In 2005, he made two movies — one pop, one serious —that added up to a sidelong commentary on the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. “War of the Worlds” was his disruption-from-another-world movie, with a chaos that channeled our own sense of how America had been ripped asunder. And “Munich,” which I consider to be one of Spielberg’s five greatest films (along with “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”), was his hypnotic thriller meditation on the seductions and perils of vengeance. “Lincoln” (2012), made just when if felt like our frayed political system was starting to crumble, was Spielberg’s pointed portrait of how a great president has to work in tandem with his political adversaries — the very thing we were forgetting how to do. (At this point, it’s beyond forgotten.) And “The Post,” the newsroom drama about the Pentagon Papers that Spielberg made the year after Donald Trump’s election, was the director’s timely comment on what freedom of the press really means and how insidiously the crackdowns against it can work.
Where does “West Side Story” fit into all this? Spielberg first expressed interest in the project in 2014. In 2015, the year that Trump announced his presidential campaign, the director issued a statement saying, “The divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out that in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides — not just territorial divides — more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.” Spielberg has discussed how when he was growing up, “West Side Story” was the first piece of popular music allowed into his home and how he fell in love with it. But there’s no question that the musical’s theme of white vs. Latin racial strife was something that Spielberg believed struck a timely chord. Trump had launched his run for office on a toxic wave of anti-immigration rhetoric. The new “West Side Story” was conceived, in no small part, as a liberal message movie designed to address and heal those racial divisions.
Nothing wrong with that. Yet in thinking of “West Side Story” on those terms, was Spielberg making a movie that would, in fact, be galvanizingly topical? Or was he making a movie that would turn out to be perilously behind the times? There’s been quite a gap, extended by the pandemic (which delayed the film’s release by a year), between Trump’s original despicable bursts of racist rhetoric and the arrival of “West Side Story.” And while Trump never let go of the racism, the whole build-the-wall era was, in Trump time, 17 scandals ago. (He has more Hispanic support now than he did then.) The truth is that we now occupy an era so scalded, so torn by division, when not just racial enlightenment but democracy itself is threatened, that the pieties of “West Side Story” don’t even qualify as a Band-Aid. They feel more like a hippie flower stuck in a gun barrel.
I guess I’m asking: As rousing a movie as “West Side Story” sometimes is, why, apart from Spielberg’s name, would anyone have expected a remake of this musical to be a surefire hit? I don’t agree with critics who say that the new version is simply “better” than the 1961 original. Sure, it’s more authentic, but part of the very thing that people cherish about the older film is its backlot corniness. (I would argue that it’s got a more indelible neon color scheme.) And though the fact that “West Side Story” is such a classic in our culture would seem to be a key selling point, perhaps it’s one that also works against the movie. People have seen the 1961 version countless times, they’ve seen high-school productions, maybe they’ve seen one of the Broadway revivals — and the music is so famous that it’s as if it’s never stopped playing. The whole premise of Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is that it was going to be old and new at the same time. But the “new” part, aside from the racially authentic casting and the swirling camera moves, was supposed to be that this film about the tragedy of tribal ethnic antagonism could speak, in fresh ways, to the cataclysms of our time. Instead, those cataclysms seem to have spoken back to it and to have crushed it.