Flixist readers, you are in for an absolute treat (re: tragedy) because today I get to write a little history lesson. The first image from Steven Spielberg’s 2020 remake of West Side Story released this week, featuring our first look at those feuding Jets and Sharks, as well as stars Ansel Elgort (my boy!) and Rachel Zegler as the movies Tony and Maria. With Spielberg at the helm and Gustavo Dudamel in charge of the score, this will almost assuredly be fun. However, I predict this movie will thoroughly fail to eclipse the original 1961 version, and not only because it’s one of the most influential films of all time.
Musicals have seen a small resurgence with the return of rabidly popular, endlessly safe music biopics, but of course they’ll never experience the same heights of success and spotlight as seen in the 40s and 50s. Without question, musicals were blockbusters before blockbusters. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire ruled as triple threats: masters of acting, dancing, and singing all at once — commanding Elvis and Beatle’s level of fandom. Top Hat proved to be RKO’s most successful film of the decade, while Singing in the Rain claimed the top box office spot in the US and Canada the year it released.
The 60s kept on rolling with the musical craze, with juggernauts like Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), and yes, Paint your Wagon (1969.) However, a distinct sea-change took place as Hollywood’s Golden Age ended. Newer, more experimental filming techniques and styles infiltrated mainstream movies, and West Side Story was one of the first and most successful films to use these. With 10 Oscar wins and a staggering $500+ million dollar box office return (adjusted for inflation), West Side Story dominated as a critical darling of it’s time, but it’s legacy reverberates throughout modern movies today too.
For starters, what’s more crucial in a musical than the music? Leonard Bernstein’s original stage composition got seriously beefed up for the movie, with Irwin Kostal’s arrangment really driving home each punch of the score. With a litany of horns, saxes, and endless percussion, songs ranged from poetic and lyrical to absolutely boppin‘. Just a few notes from “Dance at the Gym” will pump up anyone with a pulse; it even managed to make Family Guy funny for a moment. More importantly, each song succeeds at blending into the film’s text, artfully moving the plot forward in a believable way, as much as street gangs singing can be anyways. This sort of musical narrative weaving existed before, but it firmly stated that the fantasy musical number like “Gotta Dance” was on it’s way out. And if you need any proof of this important development, just take take your pick of Disney movie that draws inspiration from this new type of musical storytelling.
Equally influential were the newer techniques and more realistic approach West Side Story takes in its narrative framing. While a street fight fought with dance may not seem realistic, the realism stems from how conflict and struggle are depicted. New Yorks twisting alleyways and dirty, dilapidated apartments provide an encroaching cinematography heavily contrasted with the glitz and squeaky clean portrayal of On the Town. This is largely due to Robert Wise’s (also famous for Star Trek: The Motion Picture) stunning yet reserved direction, turning New York into a miasma of blending colours and sharp edges. The city becomes the ultimate antagonist. Once again West Side Story served as an early progenitor of film’s shifting landscape, away from obvious sound stages and more like the feel of movies we see today.
Most important, however, were the dance numbers. Jerome Robbins, a literal god of dance, received co-directing credit for how much his choreography and style elevated this movie. Take any number, America, Cool, Jet Song, or anything else, and you’ll see how all of them are the liveliest, most emotionally impactful parts of the film. Arcing kicks paired with hard knock tumbles never give you a chance to breathe, and that’s the point. I’ve never personally seen the appeal of more abstract dancing, but the strange blend of ballet, acrobatics, and jazz create an incredibly visceral feeling, one I’ve only gotten watching the best of Jackie Chan’s fight scenes. Movement’s artistry never stays constrained to one area, and the dances’ frenetic coordination has a clear through-line to so much more than just modern dance.
All these milestones show how much an uphill battle the 2020 version already faces, but there are even more potential pitfalls than immediately obvious. Surprisingly, Steven Spielberg may be one of them. There’s no doubt of Spielberg’s own influence on modern movies as he’s arguably the most influential moviemaker ever. His style is precise, unique, and largely unmatched, and that’s exactly the reason why he may stumble. This is the 72-year-old’s first musical, and there have been other famous directors with some high-profile musical mishaps. This comparison isn’t fair as I’d argue Spielberg is actually in a class all his own, but the “Spielberg Style,” from editing to cinematography to even dialogue, risks this movie losing it’s own identity. West Side Story thrills me to this day because of it’s underlying chaos of uncertainty. You know what you’ll get with a Spielberg pic, West Side Story not so much. Part of why you hire a director is to get their own vision, but there’s little chance another Spielberg film will break the same boundaries the way the collaborative 1961 version did.
The best director in the land isn’t even the most concerning part, though. No, the biggest issue is the studio that has increasingly played it safe and boring is now producing a movie in what’s become the most safe and boring genre. Disney’s track record with their live-action adaptions has steadily declined, and anyone who thinks they won’t influence the production after purchasing 20th Century Fox, doesn’t know Disney. All you have to do is look at Aladdin, a fun ride, sure, but a remake lacking any soul of its own. West Side Story needs to be 200% soul.
And soulless is definitely what seems to be defining current movie musicals. Biopics are a slightly different beast because of the reverence demanded from estates, but at their core the biggest ones have become drawn out greatest hits albums with whatever vice the protagonist must overcome or die to in the end. It’s like some bizarre regression occurred where Dewey Cox became the blueprint for these movies instead of the parody. It’s not a good creative time for musicals.
So yes, 2020’s West Side Story will definitely be a fun ride, having a great soundtrack, great director, and great Ansel. However, the environment and circumstances right now make it a riskier proposition than it appears. Not financially — of course it’ll do gangbusters — but a much worse legacy of being ‘”meh.” I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch the 1961 original first, not to see if you personally think it’s better, but to understand the rich legacy it supplied to movies as a whole. And if you need anymore convincing, I despise Romeo and Juliet.