Movie musicals are back — maybe you’ve heard? In the past few years, we’ve basked in the glow of new gotta-sing-gotta-dance extravaganzas, from recent Broadway hits (Dear Evan Hansen) and cult favorites (The Prom) to Tony winners (Into the Heights) and personal tributes to/from Tony winners (Tick, Tick…Boom!). Want something original and weird? Check out Annette, the oddball Leos Carax/Sparks collaboration that, in a perfect world, will soon join the midnight-movie canon. Or perhaps something straight, with no chaser? Go watch Hamilton, a concert-film-like document of the original-cast production that still miraculously manages to make good use of the form.
The opening number of West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s all-in adaptation of the landmark Broadway musical and remake of the 1961 Oscar winner, aims to be as exhilarating and breathtaking as humanly possible. It wildly succeeds, as do many of the classic set pieces we know and love, with flying colors (sometimes literally with flying colors). The juvenile-delinquent struts that burst into ballet moves, the abrupt leaps into the air, the sight of old-school greasers displaying an amazing grace, the synchronized bodies in motion moving past city street corners: It’s all as much of a rush here as it was in Robert Wise’s version. Suddenly, the notion of movie musicals returning to center stage doesn’t seem like mere trend-piece fodder.
But that’s not technically how the film begins. The first thing we see — before the Jets and the Sharks, before Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) start making goo-goo eyes at each other, before Officer Krupke hassles these depraved-because-they’re-deprived kids, before anyone questions how many bullets are left in the gun — is New York City. Or rather, a New York City that’s in the process of vanishing, being wiped away, receding into history. The turf these two gangs are fighting over? Their battle has already been won by a third party, not with switchblades but with bureaucracy and bulldozers. At the end of that first musical number, after the cops have broken up a fight, the Jets sing their victory song as kings of the mountain on top of a pile of rubble.