Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry previews the release of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story by looking at the history of New Hollywood directors making musicals.
Steven Spielberg‘s already impressive resume is about to get even more so. On December 10th, the director will release his first-ever musical, an adaptation of West Side Story scripted by Tony Kushner (Lincoln).
This is the second film adaptation of the award-winning show, originally written and composed by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. The first adaptation, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins was released in 1961. It is considered one of the greatest movie musicals of all time.
The surprising thing about the new film version is that it took Spielberg so long to make a musical. I get it — he’s been busy. But what makes it so surprising is that many of Spielberg’s contemporaries, the other directors of the movement known as New Hollywood and mainly his group of friends, the “Movie Brats,” have already each made one.
So when you go to the theater to see Spielberg’s West Side Story, just know that he is operating within a long tradition of filmmakers of his generation engaging with one of Hollywood’s most storied genres. As you prepare to see the new movie, here’s a brief history to guide your viewing in the coming months.
Let’s get some details out of the way and acknowledge that no one definition for any term can be complete. New Hollywood refers to a filmmaking movement in the United States in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. Key figures include Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, George Lucas, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, John Milius, Paul Schrader, and many others, including, of course, Spielberg.
A number of these New Hollywood directors were also labeled the Movie Brats. This group more specifically includes Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, De Palma, Milius, and Schrader. Unlike the Classical Hollywood directors they revered, the Movie Brats grew up with cinema as a more established art form. Some nurtured their love of the medium at film schools in Los Angeles and New York. A passion for film history and style is at the center of their work.
Some see them as an American version of the French New Wave. That group also consisted of intellectual cinephiles who turned their love of movies into a fresh style of filmmaking. Notably, New Hollywood came on the heels of the decline of the studio system. In this new environment, and particularly in the wake of the auteur movement in France and the work of American critics like Andrew Sarris, directors were increasingly viewed as the dominant creative forces behind their works.
Love for the Musical
While the directors of New Hollywood are most associated with films like The Godfather and Taxi Driver, they are often effusive in their praise of musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age. In 1998, Martin Scorsese presented an Honorary Academy Award to Stanley Donen, one of the genre’s greatest directors. In his introduction, Scorsese said :
“Looking at Stanley Donen’s career is like surveying a range of majestic mountain peaks. From his first dances in Cover Girl, to his mastery in such innovative landmarks as Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade, and Two for the Road, Stanley Donen’s entire career is distinguished by elegance, wit, visual innovation, and an extraordinary grace.
Friedkin holds a similar view of Singin’ in the Rain, one of the most revered of all Hollywood musicals, co-directed by Donen and the film’s star, Gene Kelly. He told NPR in 2012:
“Singin’ in the Rain is just a great movie to watch. It has some of the most beautiful songs you’ve ever heard. And it’s got Gene Kelly dancing and it’s a sheer joy every time I watch it. Now, you might not expect that from the director of The Exorcist. … Well, the films that I love are not the kind of films that I make, to be honest with you. But I learned from every one of these films that I continue to watch.
In fact, Friedkin told IndieWire that one of the greatest regrets of his career was that he was “never able to do one of the great MGM musicals.”
The Movie Brats and Their Musicals
There are many New Hollywood directors who have made musicals. Take, for example, Clint Eastwood‘s 2014 adaptation of Jersey Boys. Or Peter Bogdanovich’s 1975 film, At Long Last Love, named after the famous Cole Porter song. But for the remainder of this article, I’m just going to focus on the musicals made by the Movie Brats.
Brian De Palma
In 1974, Brian De Palma released the rock horror musical comedy Phantom of the Paradise. Inspired by Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, the film is about a music producer who steals the music of a young composer and tries to kill him. The composer survives the producer’s attack and then returns to haunt the producer’s production of his own stolen music.
Three years later, Martin Scorsese released perhaps the most well-known musical from the group: New York, New York. The film stars Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro as a pair of musicians in a volatile relationship. In a 2019 podcast interview, Scorsese told the director Joanna Hogg that it was his attempt to blend the Classical Hollywood musicals of his youth with Italian neorealism:
“I was always interested in the Hollywood musicals … they always hinted that there was some emotional and psychological disturbance going on with these characters, especially in the relationships in the men and the women. I was interested when the end came up, the music hit, and it was beautiful technicolor, what happened after the end? What happened to these people?”
Francis Ford Coppola
In 1982, Francis Ford Coppola released One from the Heart, a musical about a pair of working-class lovers who end their marriage to pursue lives of lust and adventure, only to realize that they do, in fact, belong together. While the film received many negative reviews upon release and was a box office flop, it has its defenders. Carlos Valladares offered this praise at MUBI in 2019:
“Coppola’s revisit to the past is not mere nostalgia; he bleeds a vibrant past (the Arthur Freed Unit musicals at MGM) into the present. And shows how the past haunts the banal present of an America about to enter into the dark Reagan years of violent, selfish prosperity.”
Now, more than thirty years later, we wait for Steven Spielberg’s first musical. Here’s what he had to say about musicals, including West Side Story, in an interview with Total Film magazine in 2004 (via From Director Steven Spielberg):
“I’ve always wanted to make a musical. Not like Moulin Rouge, though – an old-fashioned, conservative musical where everyone talks to each other, then breaks out into song, then talks some more. Like West Side Story or Singin’ in the Rain. Yeah, I want to make a musical. I’ve been looking for one for twenty years. I just need something that excites me.”
Unlike his counterparts, Spielberg has the added pressure of adapting one of the most celebrated musicals in history. I guess it’s good that he now has more than a half-century of filmmaking under his belt. Perhaps that’s why he waited so long.
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