From Jon M. Chu’s film of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights to Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of the recent Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen to Spielberg’s West Side Story: 2021 has really been the year of the movie musical. In theory, the trend was well-timed; the combination of music and the spectacle of watching the performers dance and act on screen has previously thrived in times of trouble. Take the 1930s as an example: the Great Depression saw the music and movie industries come together to cheer the masses with the likes of 42nd Street, The Wizard of Oz, and Bright Lights.
And yet the December 10th release of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story followed in the wake of what has been a spectacularly disappointing year for musicals on screen. Despite high expectations, In the Heights saw poor ticket sales and accusations of failing to cast enough Afro-Latino actors, and Dear Evan Hansen received a consensus of negative reviews from audiences and critics alike. Even against this bleak landscape of 2021 screened-musical disasters, expectations were once again raised for Spielberg’s remake of the much loved 1961 screen adaptation of West Side Story, egged on by an extremely positive response from critics in the lead up to its release.
However, grossing just $27.5 million globally on its opening weekend, it is safe to say that West Side Story has (some say unexpectedly) capped a year of blows to the movie musical genre. Why has a film praised by many critics, directed by one of the biggest cinematic auteurs of our day, and full of the popular notes of Bernstein’s hit songs, managed to flop?
The Spielberg ‘update’
The 2021 movie follows the story of young Tony who spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their romantic involvement fuels the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks – two rival gangs competing for control of the streets of New York. In many ways, it is similar to the 1961 adaptation, both set around 1960 in San Juan Hill and Lincoln Square when much of the area was being demolished.
But Spielberg has attempted to “fix” and modernise the original, including the excessive masculine violence of the Puerto Rican characters and the stereotypical portrayal of New York’s “dumps”. The ethnic tensions between the neighbourhood’s white and Puerto Rican residents are rooted in a fight for their shrinking land. In the original film, the Jets are not only protectors of white interests, they are bullies who pick on white and black kids alike. Spielberg reduces the battle to white versus Puerto Rican residents to make a point. In doing so, Richard Brody has argued Spielberg’s film “reduces its characters to single motives”, going on to say that “in revisiting the musical drama for modern sensibilities Spielberg makes misguided additions and removes what’s best.”
Related Articles: ‘Vaillante’ : UNICEF’s New Series Raises Awareness For Child Marriage | Why Is the “Squid Game” Such A Roaring Success?
A handful (or more) of negative reviews always accompany any modernised remaking of an old movie; perhaps in the case of West Side Story, they can offer clues to the story behind its failure.
Early criticism of the film was overwhelmingly positive. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw labelled it “a triumphantly hyperreal remake” and Tim Robey told Telegraph readers that the film had “won the culture wars”. Despite resulting in a probable financial loss for Disney, it is likely that West Side Story will receive recognition in the form of film awards, having already accumulated four nominations at the 79th Golden Globe Awards and eleven nominations at the 27th Critic’s Choice Awards.
Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” arrived to an estimated $10.5 million in North American ticket sales, a weak result even by pandemic standards. But musicals often take time to build an audience.https://t.co/ZoRK1HPiLL
— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 13, 2021
With its positive reviews and award nominations, there must be something else going on. Even with audiences slowly emerging in the lead-up to Christmas, it will not be enough to call the movie a box office success.
The age of COVID-19
The movie musicals of the 1930s benefitted from the hardship of the Great Depression. After the explosion of movie musicals in the early years of the talkies, the genre almost went out of business with a series of poorly directed works that abused the genre as an easy way of making money. It was only in the hard times of the 1930s that it found a new purpose in its ability to liven up audiences, reminding them how to dance and sing.
However, the audiences who have been dragged through wave after wave of COVID-19 don’t appear to be so keen to flock back to cinemas for such movies. The pandemic has seen people become selective about which movies are “worth the risk” of viewing on the big screen and which movies are better enjoyed from the safely and comfort of their own homes. It seems, thus far, that the public can dispense with genres like the musical in cinemas, instead opting for big-budget franchises. Indeed, from James Bond to Fast & Furious, each of the year’s 10 highest-grossing movies is either part of a long-running franchise or the beginning of one.
YIKES! While #SpiderMan #NoWayHome is clobbering box office records, last week’s #1 movie #WestSideStory fell a steep 67% to 4th place with only $3.5 million for the weekend. pic.twitter.com/VD8N1ZPZ71
— Scott Mantz (@MovieMantz) December 18, 2021
A genre problem: Spectacle on Screen
The genre of the movie musical, as mentioned already in this article, has always struggled to fit in: does it belong in the arty, cultured independent category or is it a genre beloved by the masses? Furthermore, is it a musical or a movie?
As Richard Brady explains in his New Yorker article on “Thirty Films That Expand the Art of the Movie Musical”, successful incarnations of this genre have actually been scattered throughout the history of moving images. They are successful when they exploit their liminality: being neither musical nor film. He argues that it is when the two genres are combined to achieve a “cinematic experience in which a concept of music is realised through images” that the movie musical has seen success.
Even with its glowing reviews and multiple nominations, it remains to be seen whether Spielberg’s 2021 West Side Story will actually win any awards following its disappointing box office figures. With such disparity between cinema attendance and reviews, perhaps the question we should be asking is: what has become of the audience?
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: West Side Story Title. Featured Photo Credit: Screenshot from West Side Story (2021) Official Trailer.