West Side Story: 50th Anniversary (Blu-ray)

January 28, 2012 11 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1961, “West Side Story” is a classic film musical that demands respect. The story is an updated version of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, transferred from the streets of Verona to the streets of Manhattan. If you do not know the story of these star-crossed lovers, then you are not the kind of person who will appreciate this film, much less be able to read this review, so what are you doing still reading this? Go check out the review of the new Vin Diesel film. Go. Now. Or else, check out Baz Luhrmun’s pre-“Moulin Rouge” film “Romeo and Juliet.”

Okay, for those of you who finished Junior High School, this is Romeo and Juliet, but instead of Montagues and Capulets you got rival street gangs the Jets and the Sharks. The twist here is that the Jets are troubled white teens and the Sharks are troubled Puerto Rican teens. And of course, Tony (Romeo) falls for Maria (Juliet), going against all the norms of their society and families. But let’s be honest, you don’t watch “West Side Story” for the story—this is a classic because of the music. I’m guessing “West Side Musical” just didn’t have the same ring to it. (Many years later, Martin Scorsese would make his own “Gangs of New York”, but it would portray far meaner streets than these).

The incomparable Leonard Bernstein composed the score, and the lyrics were written by a young man who became quite a Broadway presence in his own right, Stephen Sondheim. The musical numbers in “West Side Story” are stunningly photographed. If the balletic basketball and fight scenes start to elicit a snicker (you know who you are, I already told you to go find that Vin Diesel film instead) then just remember how far ahead of its time Jerome Robbins’s choreography was. Are the dancing fight sequences all that different from the highly choreographed martial arts fight scenes repeated in movies today? Not really, and in “West Side Story” they’re all done without the benefit of wires to suspend them, or computers to make them defy gravity—these dancers are doing it for real. And Robbins won a special Oscar for his choreography achievements.

The numbers are all integrated in to the plot, yet still they are allowed to exist in their own space and time. In one scene at the big church dance, when Tony and Maria first meet, the background walls (a vibrant red repeated often in the film) melt away to become shimmering lights in limbo. My favorite number has to be “America”, with its high energy rooftop performance. It’s such an impressive scene that it was ripped off not too long ago for a Gap commercial. For me, though, the real charm is in Sondheim’s witty, biting lyrics. As the Puerto Ricans sing about the pros and cons of their new life in America, you get gems like, “Free do be anything you choose / Free to wait tables and shine shoes.” At this point I’d like to point out one of the great features that is unique to watching this film on DVD—the subtitles. I turned on the subtitles during the musical numbers so I could sing along. Do it. It’s fun. Nobody’s going to hear you with that fancy surround sound system. “Maria, Maria. I just met a girl named Maria. MARIAAAA!”. You might even catch yourself singing along to “I feel pretty, oh so pretty”. If nothing else, you’ll appreciate the genius wordsmith of Sondheim.

The film bravely takes on racism in 1961 on the big screen—the play originally was performed on Broadway in 1957. Not only does it confront racism between the whites and Puerto Ricans, but it also ridicules the bigoted cops who abuse their power. Okay, so they cast Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican with a questionable accent—she was still a great talent and a real beauty. Meanwhile, Rita Moreno–who gives a scene-stealing performance–won the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1961 and then became relegated to mainly playing Latin roles throughout her long career.

Both Moreno and her real-life boyfriend George Chakiris, who played Maria’s brother, won Best Supporting Actor Oscars in 1961. Robert Wise, who started out his career as an editor on such classic films as “Citizen Kane”, won for best director and would win again a few years later for another musical, “The Sound of Music”. He shared the director Oscar with Robbins, but apparently a personal feud kept either one from thanking the other in their Oscar speeches. Natalie Wood was nominated for best Actress, but not for her role in “West Side Story”, rather she was nominated for “Splendor in the Grass” in which she starred with an unknown Warren Beatty. (She lost to Sophia Loren).

The transfer is beautiful. The colors in the print are rich and eye-popping, especially the reds, which are repeated throughout the film. Many times, the walls look like they were just freshly painted (realistically not a good thing, but this is a musical, so they should be afforded a bit of a license). It is presented in widescreen, which is especially important given the dance numbers that take full advantage of the frame, and the fact that it was shot in 70mm. The sound is good, as long as you’re not singing along too loud (see above). And for goodness sake, don’t skip through the overture, or stop it before Saul Bass’s ingenious title sequence at the end. If you still can’t get enough of the great music in “West Side Story”, track down a copy of Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentine” featuring his soulful rendition of “Somewhere”. Like the film, it’s a real beauty.

Video: How does it look?

One of the marquee titles for Fox, “West Side Story” arrives on Blu-ray looking its finest. The 2.20:1 AVC HD image has never looked better with beautiful, bold colors and razor sharp clarity that I’ve never seen on this film before. Bear in mind that the film is how half a century old and there are a few instances with the tiniest bit of grain on them. Still, we can see the superb clarity show thorough and the depth of field is particularly amazing. Now there is a bit of an oddity with this release in that there’s an odd transition with one of the scenes. A frame has been removed and is fairly distracting when watching the film. This hasn’t been an issue with previous versions of this movie and Fox is aware of the issue. I’m sure at some point in the future they’ll offer some “send in your disc and we’ll send you a replacement” program, but as of this writing nothing has been issued. Don’t let this 2 second error stain the entire film, though as “West Side Story” has truly never looked better.

Audio: How does it sound?

The previous Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has been replaced in favor of a DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack. There’s a noticeable difference in the quality of the sound as compared to the 2003 DVD release. However there was evidently a new six track master found, but it wasn’t used for this release in favor of four track, cheaper master. I’ve no doubt that we’ll see this on Blu-ray in the future and that this audio issue might be “fixed”, but by all means – this doesn’t sound bad! Vocals are strong and centered, surrounds are very active and the songs have never sounded more robust. A top notch effort here, for sure.

Supplements: What are the extras?

A majority of the supplements from the previous Special Edition DVD have made the leap to this Blu-ray version, though we do lose the scrapbook. So if that’s a deal-breaker for you (and it shouldn’t be) then you’ve been warned. We start off with “West Side Memories”, the 2003 documentary that appeared on the standard DVD. Running around an hour, it contains some interviews with the cast and crew as they reminisce about the film. There’s a “jukebox” feature that allows you quick access to the songs in the film, which is handy. Also included is a storyboard to film comparison set to music. The original theatrical trailer is also included. Moving onto the Blu-ray exclusives we find “Pow! The Dances of ‘West Side Story'” in which we find seven shorter featurettes that encompass the choreography of the film, though with this Blu-ray feature you can also watch it while watching the film itself. We also get a screen specific commentary by composer Steven Sondheim, though he only provides about 20 minutes of actual “material.” Lastly we get “A Place for Us. ‘West Side Story’s” Legacy” which is split into two halves: the first is “Creation and Innovation” with the second being “A Timeless Vision.” We see how the film came to be and its lasting impact on American culture.

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