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‘West Side Story’ and the Decline of the Movie Theater

The remake is wonderful. Its poor performance at the box office suggests streaming is here to stay.

by Peggy Noonan for The Wall Street Journal December 16, 2021

The new “West Side Story” is, so far, a box-office flop. Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated remake of the landmark 1961 musical received rave reviews and has been called a masterpiece. Yet its first weekend theatrical release yielded only $10.5 million, which Variety called “a dismal result for a movie of its scale and scope.”

What happened? The entertainment press has offered possible explanations. With new coronavirus variants emerging, people don’t feel comfortable in theaters. The audience for musicals skews older, the demographic with most reason to be timid. It’s the casting: No one’s ever heard of the stars. Ticket prices are too high. People are out shopping. Who wants to see a remake of a classic? Maybe the audience for movie musicals is simply over.

There’s probably something to all of these. Two additional thoughts:

One is that some who’d be part of the movie’s natural audience might not have gone because they assumed it would be woke because most of what comes out of Hollywood is woke, and they experience wokeness as a form of intellectual and moral harassment. People don’t want to see something they love traduced, so they’d stay away.

But I think there’s a larger and more immediate reason. Mr. Spielberg plus great old American film should equal huge blockbuster. “West Side Story’s” unsuccessful release tells us that we have undergone a fundamental shift in how we watch movies in America. And the entertainment industry should see it for what it is. Many thought as the pandemic spread and the theaters closed that it would all snap back as soon as the pandemic was over. People would flock back to do what they’ve been doing for more than a century, not only out of habit but tradition: They’d go out to the movies. But a technological revolution came; the pandemic speeded up what had already begun, just as it speeded up the Zoom revolution that is transforming business and office work.

People got streaming services and watched movies at home. They got used to it. They liked it. They’d invite friends and stream new releases together. Or they stayed in their pajamas and watched it.

I never thought movie theaters would go out of style, but I see that in the past few months, since New York has loosened up and things are open, I have gone to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows five times and to a movie not at all, except this week for this column. Like all Americans, I really love movies. But I can watch them at home.

The old world of America at the movies, of gathering at the local temple of culture, the multiplex, is over. People won’t rush out to see a movie they heard was great but that’s confined to theatrical release; they’ll stay home knowing it will be streaming soon.

Movie theaters won’t completely go out of business; a good number will survive because people will fill them to go to superhero movies and big fantastical action films. People will want to see those on the screen together and hoot and holler. But it will never again be as it was, different generations, different people, coming together on Saturday night at the bijou. The bijou is at home now, on the couch or bed, streaming in ultrahigh definition.

In thinking about this I hearken back to James Agee’s little masterpiece, “A Death in the Family,” a novel published posthumously in 1957. He was America’s first great movie critic, but in the book he remembered his boyhood in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1915, and his father saying at the dinner table, “Well, spose we go to the picture show.” They’d walk to the movie house and the whole town was there. “And there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip, and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world.” Then the screen was filled with a city—and there was Charlie Chaplin. “Everyone laughed the minute they saw him,” and as they left his father’s face was “wrapped in good humor, the memory of Charlie.”

You lose something when the whole town isn’t there anymore. It’s better when the whole town is gathered. The move to streaming strikes me as yet another huge cultural change, and I don’t know the answer or remedy to this change and others will have to find it. Because not all movies can be superhero movies, and not all movies should be.

As to “West Side Story”: It’s lovely. It’s beautiful, beautiful, and tender about America. The music is even lusher, fuller than in the original and the look of the movie is more colorful and sweeter. It’s beautifully cast; every young star is gifted and believable, and you have an honest sense of witnessing the beginning of brilliant careers—the guy who plays Riff, the guy who plays Bernardo, and the young woman who plays Maria.

It’s not woke, it’s wonderful. “America,” that most American of songs, so knowing but not jaded, is done differently from the original but better, more communally, and it’s just as joyous and comic.

The Journal’s Joe Morgenstern used exactly the right word to describe this movie: “Exultant.”

It’s good that this story, this music and these lyrics, enter the world again.

The whole thing makes you feel that America has a chance.

If I were a middle or high school teacher I’d take my class to see it and say, “The music and lyrics are very great and you must know them to be culturally literate; also America was kind of like this once.” I’d take a college class after having them read Jane Jacobs to understand better what was lost in the slum clearance that made way for Lincoln Center.

There are flaws, but so what? The cultural framing of the Jets and the Sharks is a little tidy and not quite on the mark. It made me think of Clifford Odets signaling the immutable socioeconomic forces that propelled the anguished working-class boxer who’d rather be a violinist. Not everything has to be explained, and some things were too heightened. The slum-clearance sets were a little too war-torn Berlin and looked like outtakes from “Saving Private Ryan.” New York didn’t look like that even in the age of urban renewal. And the end somehow takes a little longer than you want. But again, so what?

A closing note on the audience. I saw it in the AMC theater on 68th and Broadway at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday. That’s pretty much where the action of the story took place, in 1957. The theater was about 10% full. A mix of ages, but more skewed over 50. Here’s what struck me. Nobody left at the end. They stayed in their seats throughout the closing credits, and applauded individual names. Mr. Spielberg got the heartiest but everyone got some.

My thought is maybe only 10% are seeing excellence in America right now but when they do they’re so appreciative and want to show it. Ten percent of 330 million people is 33 million, and that is quite an audience. Someone will have to find out how to fully serve them in the revolution we’re in, and it won’t be with superheroes.

Peggy Noonan is an opinion columnist at the Wall Street Journal where her column, Declarations, has run since 2000.

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