When one thinks of Steven Spielberg, the word “flop” doesn’t usually come to mind. Believe it or not, he’s actually had several films underperform like Hook and even all-out bombs like The BFG. However, perhaps his biggest bomb is the new West Side Story remake, and unfortunately, it’s one of his best films.
Since it was announced years ago that Steven Spielberg was going to direct an adaptation of West Side Story, many asked: why? What could the cinematic master bring to a musical that everyone already knows and that’s already based on the most classic story of all time, Romeo & Juliet? What many moviegoers didn’t see this past weekend at the theater is that Spielberg is known as a master for a reason. While the story wasn’t new, he created a film that fires on all cylinders, with every element succeeding to the point where the movie surpasses the original 1961 version. Most people don’t realize that a movie doesn’t have to be new or original to be superb, it just has to succeed on every level that makes a movie great. West Side Story does this.
Everyone knows the story. Jets gang member Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler) who’s brother is the leader of the rival gang The Sharks. Their different cultures make their love forbidden and Spielberg especially seems interested in showing how hate can ultimately destroy the purest of loves. Ditching the original’s glossiness, Spielberg’s West Side Story is gritty yet also beautiful when it wants to be. Recently, period-set films feel like fake Hollywood productions (this has something to do with the sheen of digital photography) but shot-on-film West Side Story feels like a lived-in, raw, and real world. Even though the characters sing and dance. Some of the best things about West Side Story even have nothing to do with the fact the musical already is perhaps the best written musical of all time and he doesn’t rely it’s already perfect score and songbook to carry the film.
There are many reasons why West Side Story has bombed: a pandemic still keeping people away from theaters, sexual allegations leveled at the film’s star, and the fact that it’s not only a musical but a period piece. Whatever the reason it is, it’s a shame more people won’t see this masterpiece on the big screen. From the way the dances are choreographed to the way the camera moves to capture these great performances, every element of this film sings. With recent movie musicals featuring sub-par or autotuned actors, every performance in WSS is goosebumps-inducing. Most musicals record the tracks before production and the actors are dubbed over during filming, however many songs were recorded live for WSS, which is clear from the way the actor’s throat moves when performing.
We have so few movies left from Steven Spielberg, and audiences may not have many chances left to see the greatest living director’s work on the big screen. This makes West Side Story’s box-office failure a tragedy. Despite film’s small screen-only trajectory getting nearer and nearer, Spielberg still makes movies for the big screen. Years from now when he’s passed on, many viewers will surely discover West Side Story and recognize it as one of his best films and regret they didn’t see it when it was released in theaters. Going to the movies isn’t just about watching a movie on a large screen, it’s about the experience, and West Side Story is that experience millions of moviegoers are sorely missing.