‘West Side Story’ Underperforms and Not Just Because Gen Z Didn’t Show

I loved Steven Spielberg’s emotionally-energy and visually-packed movie just fine, although I’m not as delighted with it as some of my fellow critics. There’s an ecstatic tone playing through the comments. I’m making the case because you were expecting collective immunity to be one of the many things that inspired people to go out and watch the movie.

Shocking disappointment at the opening box office of West Side Story — grossing just $10.5 million, $1 million less than In the Heights ($11.5 million) and only $3 million more than “Dear Evan Hansen,” both of which were considered performances. Faded – can be traced back to the chain of explanations that everyone offers. The adaptation of a 64-year-old Broadway musical, presented as a solid remake of the beloved 1961 Academy Award-winning film, is a movie whose success has always hinged on a turnout for older viewers—and during the pandemic, much of that audience stays at home. Surely, there were hopes that young people would show up to see West Side Story. But the numbers only prove what many have long believed: Generation Z doesn’t like musicals, and certainly not old classical musicals (although some dig “The Greatest Showman,” and for good reason). Without the benefit of this strong youth demo, the 2021 movie runs at a disadvantage.

However, even knowing all of that, “West Side Story” returns were impressive. Even when you consider all the factors working against the mass attendance of films in the age of COVID, there has been a desire – and a strong if not entirely certain – expectation that such big music be rooted in the bones of culture, reimagined by an artist with a legendary name like Stephen Spielberg, a must-see proposal, could bypass the usual hurdles of a pandemic. Families will definitely go!

It’s a sad fact the moment we went to the movies that when it came to adult-oriented dramas, title after title (“Belfast”, “Spencer”, “King Richard”) underperformed dramatically. However, one such movie actually succeeded: “House of Gucci,” which actually had to work its way through a storm of critical irony (it was all short-sighted, in my opinion). It may be a bullish bonanza for this movie (although international returns should help), but what’s undeniable is that “House of Gucci” has found an audience. Were they all fans of 28-year-old Lady Gaga? Sorry, but I don’t think that’s it Just Explain why the movie is connected. The adults have appeared. The numbers indicate that with the right film, this audience can still be reached. Plus, if Lady Gaga was the unclassified weapon of “House of Gucci” success, this still begs the question: Why isn’t Steven Spielberg’s name the unclassified weapon in West Side Story?

To find an answer to that, I think you have to consider why the remake of “West Side Story” exists in the first place, what is always meant by its appeal, and why that appeal might, as Spielberg envision it, have evaporated. As a critic, I can’t pretend to be inside a filmmaker’s head, yet reading the directors’ intuition is part of what critics do; It’s part of how we interpret popular culture. And my reading of Spielberg is that over the past twenty years he has worked, many times now, in the kind of self-designed obsession that I might call the allegorical subject statement.

In 2005, he made two films – one Bob and one Jad – that added a commentary on the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. War of the Worlds was his film about turmoil from another world, with the chaos guiding our sense of how America is being torn apart. Considered one of Spielberg’s five greatest films (along with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan), “Munich” was his thrilling meditation on the temptations and dangers of revenge. Filmed when we sensed our tattered political system was beginning to crumble, “Lincoln” (2012) was Spielberg’s guiding portrait of how a great president works alongside his political opponents—the very thing we’ve forgotten how to do. (At this point, it can’t be forgotten.) And “The Post,” the newsroom drama about the Pentagon Papers Spielberg presented in the year following Donald Trump’s election, was the director’s timely comment on what press freedom really means and how campaigns can work. against it.

Where does the West Side story lie in all of this? Spielberg first expressed interest in the project in 2014. In 2015, the year Trump announced his campaign, the director released a statement saying, “The divisions between sharks and planes in 1957, which inspired the musical, were deep. But not as far as we find ourselves today. It turns out that in the middle of developing the text, things have widened, which I believe, unfortunately, has made the story of those racial divisions—and not just regional ones—more relevant to today’s audience than they might have been in 1957.” Spielberg discussed how that when he was growing up, “West Side Story” was the first famous piece of music he was allowed into his house and how he fell in love with it. But there is no doubt that the music’s theme of white versus Latin racial conflict was something Spielberg thought struck a chord at the right time. Trump unleashed his candidacy for president on a toxic wave of anti-immigration rhetoric. The new “West Side Story” was conceived, in no small part, as a liberal message film designed to address and heal those racial divides.

There is nothing wrong with that. However, when thinking about “West Side Story” in these terms, was Spielberg making a movie that would actually be a topical one? Or was he making a movie dangerously behind in time? There was a huge chasm, widened by the pandemic (which delayed the film’s release for a year), between Trump’s original spurs of racist rhetoric and the arrival of West Side Story. And while Trump has never given up on racism, the entire era of wall-building was, under Trump, before 17 scandals. (He now has more Hispanic support than he had at the time.) The fact is that we now occupy an era so hot, so torn by division, when not only racial enlightenment, but democracy itself is under threat, that piety in “West Side Story” is not even classified as a band-aid. They feel like a hippie flower stuck in a pistol barrel.

I guess I ask: Given the excitement of a movie like West Side Story at times, why, with the exception of Spielberg’s name, would anyone expect a remake of this play to be a sure hit? I don’t agree with critics who say the remake is simply “better” than the 1961 original. Sure, it’s more authentic, but part of the thing people cherish about the old movie is its ambiguity. (I’d argue that it has an indelible neon color scheme.) And while the fact that “West Side Story” is a classic in our culture seems to be a major selling point, it probably also works against the film. People have watched the 1961 version countless times, seen high school productions, and maybe even seen a Broadway revival — and the music is so famous that it never stops playing. The whole premise of Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is that it will be old and new at the same time. But the “new” part, aside from authentic racial representation and swirling camera moves, was meant to be this film about the tragedy of ethnic-tribal animosity that could speak, in new ways, about the disasters of our time. Instead, that catastrophe seemed to strike back and crush her.

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