“West Side Story,” the acclaimed retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, directed by Steven Spielberg, premiered in Dec. 2021. It generated a meager $35 million at the box office in its first three weeks. Essentially, it flopped. But it shouldn’t have.
First of all, the movie is gorgeous to look at. Each shot looks like a professional photograph that should be exhibited in a museum. In “West Side Story,” the camera is constantly reflecting the tone of the scene. The moves are slow and intentional. They illuminate characters and build a world. The opening shot of the film takes viewers through the decimated slums of New York City, where two street gangs are trying to survive. Through the camera, they understand the world and the characters before getting any music or dialogue.
Recently, it seems that the sound mixers on films get carried away in their efforts to immerse audiences. That is not the case in this movie. The audio is crisp and every sound serves the story. The musical score is sweeping. The songs are laden with emotion. “West Side Story” is a tragedy through and through and the sound mixing allows audiences to be carried away in it.
Every good movie needs tension, a reason for audiences to hope and fear. “West Side Story” obviously has drama inherently because it’s a film about two conflicting street gangs, but there is a deeper dread that builds the whole film because people know how the story of Romeo and Juliet is doomed to end. The movie isn’t only that though. There are moments of genuine joy, humor and love throughout. In fact, it was these moments that have stayed with me the longest.
“West Side Story” is also culturally-relevant today. Divisiveness and uncompromising attitudes abound in our culture. There are still social tensions regarding race and class, and whether America has lived up to its great promise. “West Side Story” explores these themes, as well as the impact of both wrong and right choices on those around us into the future. In the movie, if any character had made even one correct choice, things would have turned out differently.
Lastly, this movie should have been a success because musicals are all the rage. The popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” “In the Heights,” and “Encanto,” as well as the recent “Dear Evan Hansen” film shows that there is an audience for musicals. “West Side Story” should have drawn in that audience, as well as past generations who appreciated the original.
Perhaps the surge of the Omicron variant had something to do with the film’s poor turnout. Whatever the reason, despite its lackluster performance at the box office, “West Side Story” is a film well worth seeing.