PG-13 for violence. There's some sexual assault stuff that is glossed over for the sake of tone, but it is in there. There's a fair amount of death because it is about a gang war. I seem to be jumping all over the racism stuff because it seems so obvious, but West Side Story is fundamentally a story about racism and privilege. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
This is the most unfair thing I might ever write. I feel bad about it because he may be one of the most talented people of our generation. Here it goes: "Steven Spielberg may have lost his touch."
Geez, I actually feel horrible about writing that. The man oozes talent. He's got more filmmaking skill in his pinky finger than I will ever have. But West Side Story may be the most telling thing about Steven Spielberg that I could imagine. Spielberg stopped making summer blockbusters. One could argue that Ready Player One was an attempt to do what he did best, but Ready Player One was fairly forgettable and kind of lacked soul. I mean, I don't think that anyone was comparing Ready Player One to Jaws. But Spielberg was also --originally! --one of the Netflix detractors. He stated how Netflix movies weren't real movies. I mean, I get the emotional element of it. But Spielberg has aged poorly. It's not surprising because Spielberg is also aggressively nostalgic.
I mean, he had his period of what he considered artistic films. These were movies that were artistic for him. I'm talking about movies like War Horse and Lincoln. These weren't barnburners. They were introspective. Schindler's List gave him a taste for gravitas and he started chasing that over-and-over again. It's fine. I'm glad that he expanded. While these movies are all technically impressive, I don't know how many people are dropping War Horse on their favorite films list. But taking all of this into consideration, Spielberg is painfully lost in his own shadows and his own comfort zone. Yeah, drama was a departure for him. But he's really afraid to adapt with the time. Because he is the master of what he does, I have the feeling that he isn't inspired by anyone but his contemporaries. I'm sure that he gets nervous when sitting at a table with Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. But the next generation of directors somehow seems beneath him. Instead of learning and expanding, he's just doing what he likes to do without being questioned.
West Side Story looks really pretty. It's an absolutely gorgeous movie. I can't fight that whatsoever. Heck, part of me wants to just enjoy it for the visual elements and the new actors. I now kind of like musicals. That trailer got me so excited for this movie and I wish I just left it to the imagination of the trailer. But Spielberg as a personality got in the way of this movie. Because I want to crescendo my issues with this movie, I'm going to start off with the most superficial and obvious: the book doesn't match the aesthetics. There's this tone in the movie stressing the hard edges of gang life. Everything both bright and washed out. Gone are the vivid colors of technicolor (for the most part) and in its place comes this new color palate that is supposed to give this film an edginess. That's fine. In terms of content, this is about a gang war / race war that leads to the death of many of the characters. Cool. But the music hasn't been updated since the original West Side Story.
While the story is the same and a lot of the book is the same, the tone of the original film embraced the theatrical elements of the stage. The heightened reality of musicals was embraced in 1961. The fact that the staging and the coloring (I'm not going to be talking about THAT coloring in this unless I rewatch the OG West Side Story) has an appropriately hokey element to it where songs like "Officer Krupke" have a copacetic home. But this is not the home for this. Couple it with the dancing and it just comes across as inappropriate. Honestly, a member of the Jets makes a lot of jokes about sexually assaulting a transgender character and then it leads to a tongue-in-cheek dance about how "we just ain't no good"? There's this break in the verisimilitude that is very hard to overcome. Spielberg seems a bit slavish to the source material, which leads to the biggest problem with this film that actually really bothers me.
Spielberg changes very little from the original musical. It's a remake in the strictest way possible. In the same way that Gus Van Sant remade Psycho, Spielberg was in love with the original West Side Story. As such, the music stays exactly the same. No edge given to match the tone. But this is troubling in a very real way. From an artistry element, the new West Side Story has no reason to exist beyond Spielberg's consistent return to nostalgia and history. He saw something he loved from his youth and thought that he could make it better. That's not an artist talking. While I can completely appreciate art about art, this isn't that story. This is a story of racial divide and violence between teenagers. When the original West Side Story came out, there was an issue with juvenile delinquency across America. There were straight up task forces asked to address this epidemic of violence in America. So when the original book came out, it took Romeo and Juliet and focused on America's youth. It had an artistic reason for coming out. The absurdity that teens were killing each other over empty territory was something that needed to be addressed through art.
There's a new epidemic of violence across America. Gun violence in schools has become commonplace. The racial divide has gained such a momentum that we can't help but hear about racial issues in the news any day of the week. But West Side Story chooses to talk about none of this. It's letting us do all of the heavy lifting on this discussion. It makes it seem like racial violence was a thing of the past. West Side Story wasn't treating race issues as a nostalgic thing. It was talking to a contemporary audience. Spielberg releasing West Side Story, few changes made, is implying that this era was quaint. "Look how far we've come." He saw a movie he liked and he wanted other people to like the musical as well. How is that challenging us as a culture? I refuse to let this be a rhetorical question: it doesn't. It's screaming old man politics. It's a simplicity that doesn't really hold weight anymore. It's a little bit of how Disney won't take any real risks with its filmmaking, instead mirroring the majority in its controversial choices. (That being said, I'm going to go nuts on Turning Red soon. Pay attention that!)
West Side Story itself is a better story than I remember. When I was younger, I appreciated it only from the perspective of a musical. But there's some really good stuff in there. Yeah, the music is still good, even if it doesn't fit with the visuals here. But West Side Story should be controversial as heck in the same way that Romeo and Juliet should be controversial. It should be talking about the problems that we're still having instead of the problems that we used to have. That's maybe me getting on my soapbox a little bit. But it is also why I'm slowly losing respect for one of the most talented directors of the modern era. He's so darned talented and he has the ability to move audiences to tears if he allowed himself to be vulnerable and learn from his contemporaries. He's too good to be making stuff like this safe version of West Side Story. This movie is wholly unnecessary and it is a crime that it is up for Best Picture.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.