Reel Streaming: The Musicalization of Steven Spielberg
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 62
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
“Long-awaited” is an expression that’s thrown around too much—it should be reserved for studio publicists and shills, not excited film fans like myself who can’t hold in their anticipation. But in the case of West Side Story, it’s warranted.
Originally scheduled to be released in December, 2020 by Disney-owned 20th Century Studios but then delayed due to Covid, West Side Story, directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, opens wide in theaters only on December 10. Its opening coincides with the 60th anniversary of the release of the original 1961 film, the winner of 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
And the advance word has been wildly enthusiastic.
West Side Story has been brewing in Spielberg's stew of possible projects since 2014 and he has long professed his love of the landmark musical—both the original Broadway cast recording from 1957 and the 1961 film by Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins. And he’s been reminding everyone in recent weeks as he hits the press circuit.
“I have been challenged by what would be the right kind of musical to take on, and I could never forget my childhood. I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album and it never went away,” he said in a studio press interview late last month. “I’ve been able to fulfill that that dream and keep that promise that I said, to myself, ‘You must make West Side Story.’”
Over the course of his five-decade filmmaking career, Spielberg has directed a remarkable 32 films, the majority of which are the kind of large-scale, Hollywood productions that audiences have always associated with him. He’s the rare contemporary filmmaker who only worked small when he was first starting out. Save for his first three films—the 1971 TV thriller Duel; the 1974 road movie The Sugarland Express, which marked his theatrical debut; and, of course, 1975’s disarmingly small-scaled Jaws—Spielberg has been going really big for the bulk of his career.
But while he’s certainly shined in such brands as science fiction and fantasy, war epics and dramas, action-adventure, family-style entertainments and historical pieces—and revealed himself to be a little uncomfortable with romances (Always, 1989) and comedy (1941, 1979)—Spielberg has never directed a musical, that most adored of Golden Age genres.
Still, the spirit of the Hollywood musical and other related musical DNA has made its way into a number of his films over the years. And not just in the form of the iconic scores of composer John Williams, who has collaborated with Spielberg on all but five of his features and won four Academy of Awards for his efforts.
First came the rousing jitterbug contest in the comedy 1941, which remains Spielberg’s only bona fide box-office failure. The most engaging set piece in this overstuffed comedy finds Bobby Di Cicco and Dianne Kay and a dozen other couples dancing up a storm in a USO club as tensions run high in post-Pearl Harbor Los Angeles. The bit ends with a huge brawl between soldiers and sailors that spills out onto Hollywood Boulevard and grows into a riot. It’s as wildly energetic and entertaining a sequence as any action scene Spielberg has ever directed, which is saying a lot.
Five years later, Spielberg got substantially musical again in the 1984 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the first sequel in the four-film Raiders of the Lost Ark franchise. (A fifth entry is due in 2023, this one directed by James Mangold, with Spielberg serving as producer). Temple of Doom opens on a scene set in the glamourous Club Obi-Wan (Star Wars fans, take note) in 1930s Shanghai, where a group of Chinese chorus girls led by an American singer kick things off with a lavish musical number set to Cole Porter's “Anything Goes.”
Magnificently shot and delightfully sung in Mandarin, it’s a killer opening, concluding with Indy entering the club just in time to take part in a furious fight that, like in 1941 before it, lays waste to the entire place. Clearly, Spielberg has a yen for musical interludes ending in destruction, though I doubt Porter or Busby Berkeley would be disappointed with what’s on the screen.
While Spielberg has more or less dismissed the majority of Temple of Doom as being too nasty, what with its heart-gouging, child slavery and voodoo incantations, he’s never mentioned any dissatisfaction with the opening, which remains the most memorable part of the film.
“The prettiest thing that came out of that film was my future wife,” Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “I met Kate [Capshaw], my leading lady. And my leading lady is still my leading lady.”
Oh, did I mention that Kate is the one American singer who serves up “Anything Goes?”
There have been other musical flourishes over the years: Margaret Avery’s flamboyant blues singer Shug Avery belting out the Oscar-nominated “Ms. Celie’s Blues” in The Color Purple (1985) and Leonardo DiCaprio and a gaggle of flight attendants parading through Miami International Airport to Sinatra’s inviting “Come Fly with Me” in the crime adventure Catch Me If You Can (2002) immediately come to mind. (It’s worth noting that both films were later turned into Broadway musicals.)
The gravity-defying dance challenge between a pair of virtual reality gamers in the sci-fi adventure Ready Player One (2018) is quite lively, and there’s even a nightclub scene with a tango-playing orchestra and a line of high-kicking dancers in 1993’s Schindler’s List. Clearly, there’s been a feature-length musical knocking on Spielberg’s door for years just waiting to make its entrance.
But Spielberg and West Side Story? For his first musical, the world’s most successful and popular commercial filmmaker makes a new film adaptation of one of the most treasured works in the American musical canon. That’s Spielberg swinging for the fences, as he’s wont to do, and the kind of serious stuff that deserves our attention.
It’s been long-awaited and I can hardly wait to see it.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.