Our greatest living filmmaker has been aching to make something like ‘West Side Story’ since the beginning of his career.
The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that Steven Spielberg is currently beginning the casting search for his long-gestating remake of West Side Story. This isn’t a new plan; all the way back in 2014, Deadline reported he was circling the project. At the time, the famously busy director seemed to be merely flirting with the idea. Now, with casting calls going out and Spielberg planning to shoot the film after he finishes work on 2020’s Indiana Jones 5, a new West Side Story seems all but certain.
Reaction to the concept of a West Side Story remake has been understandably muted. The original 1961 adaptation is a classic, with a timeless soundtrack and a cast at the top of their game. Spielberg, meanwhile, is a filmmaker who’s never directed a musical, and he’s unique in his ability to remain peculiarly underrated. As the highest-grossing filmmaker of all time, he holds a position that attracts contrarians and encourages dissent. “Spielberg isn’t a good director” is an instantly interesting opinion because it flies so against the grain. It’s also one of those few opinions that holds no merit beyond that immediate and visceral reaction. Spielberg’s populist bona fides don’t contradict his once-in-a-lifetime filmmaking ability. No one knows how to tell a purely visual story like him, and it’s possible no one ever will again. West Side Story is in good hands.
Spielberg’s musical itch has shown itself consistently throughout his filmography
Over the course of his nearly 50 years in the industry, Spielberg has made a lot of movies, and more than a few of them have unmistakable musical DNA. He famously edited Close Encounters of the Third Kind to match a completed John Williams score. And infamous bomb 1941 was conceived as a musical until Spielberg decided he wasn’t prepared to handle all of the moving parts required. The finished film contains several musical sequences, however, all of which are much preferable to the antic comedic stylings that sink the rest of the narrative.
Less than five years later, Spielberg was confident enough to flirt with the genre again, this time in the opening of blockbuster sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The Busby Berkeley-inspired opening musical number is unabashedly fantastical and entirely detached from the universe of the rest of the film. While Spielberg has widely dismissed Temple of Doom as a failure since its release, “Anything Goes” has escaped his criticism. For Spielberg, it is a tantalizing taste of a genre he still felt was out of his reach.
Other films throughout his career would step closer to the movie musical, but the Spielberg of the late ’80s and ’90s was more interested in chasing Oscars than he was in achieving that dream. His films grew more serious-minded, but even The Color Purple had music in its blood. “Ms. Celie’s Blues” was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar, and the final set piece of the film is a climactic sung-through confrontation that wouldn’t be out of place in a film like West Side Story. The Color Purple was even later turned into a Broadway musical.
This is what Spielberg has always wanted to do, and he’s damn good at it. Who are we to say no?