The film starts with the most famous whistle of any musical theater score ever written as the camera pans over heaps of rubble and garbage, the only thing left of the former tenements and neighborhoods of San Juan Hill, an area of urban decay on the Upper West Side that was home to thousands of displaced African Americans and Puerto Ricans. A large sign proclaims the area to be The Future Home of Lincoln Center. Each frame is a master class in chiaroscuro and composition, and you get the feeling that this is not going to be your typical musical comedy.
This is the 2021 version of West Side Story; a reinterpretation of the 1961 award-winning film, this time with more violence, angst, and appropriate ethnic representation. The names behind this movie are the giants of theater and film; Bernstein, Sondheim, Spielberg, Kushner, Kaminski, Rita freakin’ Moreno. The direction is superb, the camera moving around the streets like it’s one of the dancers in the gorgeous choreography of Justin Peck. Every detail in this film has been authentically researched and the character’s subtext explored just enough to make some of their choices make more sense. It is a classic remake of a classic film, and it is wonderful.
Also, it bombed, quite spectacularly, taking out the box office like the wrecking ball that destroys the slums that the Jets gleefully dance through while snapping their fingers. How can a movie with this much genius behind it so thoroughly miss connecting with an audience? There are a lot of guesses about why people didn’t show up, number one being the fact that we are still in what feels like the 147th surge of the pandemic. And yet there was another movie that opened a week later that broke all box office records (more on that one later), so fear of disease wasn’t necessarily the problem.
West Side Story was supposed to open a year ago but was postponed because of the original pandemic, the one before we started adding Greek letters to the vocabulary. Would audiences have responded differently if we weren’t all worn down completely by the constant torrent of terrible news? Personally, I am finding it hard to focus on anything that is heavier than a Hallmark Christmas movie. West Side Story has gorgeous music, but it is still full of violence, hate, tragedy, and grief. It is definitely not a laff riot, which is really all that I want to watch right now.
I’ve often wondered how actual critics (not the wannabees who are typing in their basements, like me) put aside their own feelings and depression and review a piece of art (film, book, play, whatever) in a neutral way. What if they are in a terrible mood for the same reasons everyone else is these days? What if they hate comic book heroes but are reviewing their 19th Marvel movie?
Since I am a huge fan of all musical theater, I had been waiting to see this film for a long time. And as I watched the Jets and the Sharks try to kill each other but still keep their toes pointed, I couldn’t help but wish I was in the next theater watching Spider-Man.
The Popcorn Kernels of Truth give this film Three Kernels. It is gorgeous and tremendously well-acted, danced, and photographed. It just isn’t a lot of fun.