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West Side Story(1961)
Modern day "Romeo and Juliet" musical about a teen from one gang who falls for a Puerto Rican girl whose brother is from a rival gang, and no one wants them to be together, all happening on the streets of New York City.
For more about West Side Story and the West Side Story Blu-ray release, see West Side Story Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on November 8, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Simon Oakland
Directors: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
» See full cast & crew
West Side Story Blu-ray Review
Will this be just any Blu-ray?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, November 8, 2011
It's somewhat hard to believe, especially considering the work's present day reputation in both its stage and film incarnations, but West Side Story was more of a succès d'estime than an outright smash when it opened on Broadway in 1957. It was certainly appreciated critically (for the most part, though even the critics had some qualms), and it managed a respectable if not earth shattering run (certainly much longer than Bernstein's 1956 musical Candide had), but it was really the 1961 Robert Wise film that seemed to reinvigorate the property and made it into the icon it is today. (It is worth noting that the 1957 Tony for Best Musical actually went to The Music Man, and West Side Story only won a couple of relatively minor technical awards). 1961 audiences had never seen a film quite like West Side Story before, and it seemed to perfectly capture both the hope and the unseemly underbelly of the New Frontier era, becoming a cinematic zeitgeist that is still viscerally felt now fifty years after its release. The soaring Bernstein score, the incredible use of location photography by director Robert Wise, the unbelievably athletic choreography by Jerome Robbins (credited as co-director of the film), the innovative titles created by Saul Bass, all seemed incredibly innovative and stand as some of the finest examples of musical filmmaking in the entire annals of cinema. The film was an immediate sensation when it was released, the original soundtrack album on Columbia Records vaulted to the top of the charts (where it stayed for over a year), songs from the score which had been well received but hardly considered standards were suddenly Top 10 hits ("Tonight" by Ferrante and Teicher, etc.), and the whole world seemed to be entranced by this modern day reworking of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set amid the tenements of New York City and dealing with the tensions not between the Montagues and Capulets, but between Anglos and Puerto Ricans.
To begin to understand just how revolutionary West Side Story was when it debuted, it's instructive to look back at the previous behemoth musical which brought home a record setting number of Oscars, including Best Picture, 1958's Gigi. Gigi was the apotheosis of everything that the M-G-M musical had striven to be for over two decades: big, colorful, lush and tuneful. It was also decidedly old-fashioned, purposefully so, and even its most potentially controversial aspect—that young Gigi was in training to be a courtesan—was handled with a circumspection befitting the Eisenhower age. Now simply take a look at the opening fifteen minutes of West Side Story to see how radically Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins and the entire creative crew of the film rethought the entire cinematic experience of the musical. After that ultramodern Saul Bass title design which plays out against the film's bristing Overture, we get a quarter hour of virtually nothing but Bernstein's propulsive Prologue and dance, all shot on location in Manhattan amongst the rubble of what would soon become Lincoln Center. The film begins with amazing aerial shots of Manhattan looking straight down on the city and far away traffic noises can be heard as Bernstein's glorious music begins playing. The film immediately thrust the viewer in an alternate reality where, yes, rival gang members danced—and danced ballet- like moves at that—and it was all not just believable, it was viscerally palpable.
It's that incredible dance element which is probably West Side Story's most distinctive element and while the creative difference between Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins are well documented, Robbins' contributions cannot be underestimated. Frankly, neither can Wise's, for it was no doubt Wise's directorial acumen as well as his history with editing that shaped the film so brilliantly. Has anyone ever used a zoom lens as potently (and minimally, thank heavens) as Wise does in that opening shot of the Jets? Has any other musical blended movement, editing and music so seamlessly as has West Side Story? (About the only close analog I can think of, and it's a distant second, is the brilliant editing of "Tradition" in Fiddler on the Roof). While some of the film may in fact seem slightly creaky today, especially with regard to the not all that threatening interplay between the Jets and Sharks, at least in the opening scenes, West Side Story still maintains a vigor and energy which is startling to this day. And pay attention to how many long takes are used in the film, despite its brilliant editing. This is not Chicago-style quick cutting where the viewer is fooled into thinking they're seeing brilliant dance. This is brilliant dance, caught on film as it never had been before and frankly never has since.
The other amazing element at the forefront of this film is the incredible music of Leonard Bernstein, delivered here in sumptuous orchestrations by a wealth of incredible talents including Johnny Green, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal and Saul Chaplin (who also associate produced). It's fascinating to realize that Bernstein, ever the charming pedant, took history's most notorious interval, the augmented fourth (or diminished fifth), the Diabolus in musica or tritone, long considered unsingable, and built an entire score around it. It's indicative of how well he achieved his goal that generations of college music theory students have since learned to recognize the tritone with the mnemonic device of the opening two notes of "Maria" from West Side Story. This is one of the most symphonic and operatic "musical" scores in the annals of Broadway and/or Hollywood, and it is a score filled with such genius and impeccable musicianship that it has lost none of its allure and gut-wrenching power in the more than half century since audiences first heard it on the Great White Way.
Richard Beymer has come in for fairly consistent critical brickbats for his ultra-"nice boy" Tony, but his performance is filled with the naïvete of the early sixties, an idealism and hope that may strike cynical 21st century types as hopelessly old fashioned but which was then in full flower. The rest of the cast can't be faulted under any circumstances. Natalie Wood is a beautiful and, in the film's tragic denouement, haunting Maria, and Oscar winners Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are fiery and unforgettable as Anita and Bernardo. The supporting cast is filled with fantastic turns by everyone from Russ Tamblyn as Riff, a very funny John Astin as the high school's dance organizer, and Ned Glass as the world weary Doc, owner of the neighborhood malt shop where the Jets meet to work on their plans to defeat the Sharks.
West Side Story is perhaps the prime example of how to adapt a stage musical to the medium of film. Several very smart alterations were made to the placement of songs in a different order from the Broadway version, and Wise and his crew took advantage of every technical bell and whistle then at their disposal without ever making the film seem gimmicky or fake. Everything from the glorious location footage of the opening to the amazing abstract dissolve of Maria twirling into the high school dance sequence to Boris Leven's stunning production design which makes New York a claustrophobic calamity, work in perfect harmony here, making this one of the true glories of 20th century film. If you've never seen West Side Story, you're in for one of the prime experiences of your film-going life. If you have seen West Side Story and are eagerly awaiting its Blu-ray debut, pull up a chair and put in your disc, sit back and enjoy, for tonight will most definitely not be just any night.
West Side Story Blu-ray, Video Quality
Fans of West Side Story's AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.19:1 have ben abuzz with some pretty venomous comments based on some early reports of flaws with this presentation, and several have decided before even seeing the Blu-ray that it's not worth owning. Are there problems? Yes, certainly, at least one of which should never have happened under any circumstances. Other compression artifacts, while troubling, are fairly commonplace ones that videophiles have seen in manifold high definition presentations since the dawn of the Blu-ray age. So let's get the bad out of the way first, and the good news (if bad news is ever good news) is that the bulk of the problems with West Side Story happen in the first few minutes. The inexcusable error is the absolutely incomprehensible and dunderheaded fade-out and fade-in during Saul Bass's iconic title design which accompanies the Overture. Fans of the film know that there should be no fade out whatsoever, simply a bold color change, followed by the slight pull back which reveals the title West Side Story as part of Bass's abstract skyline. That error was embarrassing enough for Fox to immediately agree to a second pressing, and corrected discs are expected soon (we'll make sure to post any exchange information in our news section as it becomes available). As we progress through the actual opening of the film, the overhead shots of Manhattan are plagued by fairly abhorrent shimmer on lots of the vertical lines of the skyscrapers. Later even more outrageous shimmer, verging on actual moiré at times, repeatedly hits the fence in the basketball court where the Jets and Sharks have their showdown (especially egregious examples can be seen at 7:43 and 11:53). Gated windows exhibit the same artifacting, notably at around 8:22. Very slight shimmer is also noticeable on the ribbed orange wall paneling of the high school dance scene later in the film. There are also some registration issues with opticals throughout the film, where density seems slightly affected.
So that's the bad news. The good news may not sound as dramatic, but it's really rather amazing. I have seen this film repeatedly in 70mm (and 35mm) through the years, and I can honestly say it has never looked this sharp or appealing, despite the occasional flaws of this transfer. Colors are gorgeously saturated, everything that an early sixties Technicolor film should be. Those outrageous reds and purples of Bernardo's shirt have never popped so magnificently, and everything from the weird oranges and purples of the high school dance sequence to that similarly orange hued semi-nightmare scene in Anita's apartment late in the film have never looked this gorgeous. West Side Story has been touted as having undergone hundreds of hours of restoration, and while that may or may not be PR hyperbole, the fact is this presentation is absolutely blemish free, clear and clean and remarkably sharp and well detailed.
In my personal opinion, the pluses far outweigh the minuses of this presentation and once Fox offers replacements fixing the Overture debacle, at least one major complaint will have been dealt with. Is this a perfect presentation? No, and I'm the first to say it certainly could have been better. Fox hasn't quite attained the generally consistent excellence that Warner has with their catalog titles (at least with regard to M-G-M and United Artists), and while Warner efforts like their recent Mutiny on the Bounty and now Fox's West Side Story are not all they might have been, there's still an awful lot here to celebrate.
West Side Story Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Was there another missed opportunity with regard to West Side Story's new lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix? That depends on whom you ask. The film's original six track mag masters were discovered and restored last year, but those were not used for this new mix, evidently due to cost considerations. Instead a repurposing of the four track mag masters was considered more feasible. There's a fascinating article audiophiles may want to read here which details the discovery and history of the six track mix, which was standard in the Todd-AO format. Be that as it may, once again Fox has at least slightly missed the surround boat with this new rendering, and once again the biggest problem comes right off the bat, in terms of the iconic whistles which open the film. While they still are panned more toward the rear in this mix, they're not panned to the extreme side channels (alternating left and right) as they were in the original mix. With both this error and the unforgivable fade out on the Overture it's apparent that Fox either incomprehensibly didn't use a reference print of any kind or simply didn't have anyone working on this film who had any history or knowledge of how it was presented theatrically. The brouhaha raised by these errors will hopefully be a major wake up call to creative staffs who are working on Blu-ray releases of iconic catalog properties, as there are copious quantities of people still around who do have histories with the film, at the very least as audience members, and they remember how these movies looked and sounded.
And so once again, we're over the bad news. The good news is the 7.1 repurposing is for the most part rather artful. While highs seem to be just slightly clipped on this track, for the most part the music sounds absolutely gorgeous, with sterling fidelity and amazing dynamic range. Surround activity, aside from those opening whistles, is very well handled, and such great scenes as the Quintet have singing coming in clearly from the surrounds, helping to separate and define the many participants. Best of all, the last incomprehensible thing that happened on a West Side Story home video release, the bizarre audio synch problem during "Tonight," has been corrected. (What is it with these star- crossed home video releases of West Side Story, anyway?).
West Side Story Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
West Side Story Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Is this a perfect West Side Story? No. There are troubling, if overall minor, issues with both the video and audio presentations. Should that keep collectors from wanting this release? The internet hubbub has already caught Fox's attention and it seems likely now that at the very least the Overture debacle will be quickly handled. The compression artifacts are another issue, but the good news is for the most part they're over with after the first few minutes of the film. The misplaced whistles will probably bother those with long memories the most, and those are at least partially offset by finally having "Tonight" in synch. In my personal opinion, this really isn't a glass half full, glass half empty debate. The pluses of this release far outweigh the troubling minuses. The color, detail and clarity of this presentation are for the most part amazing, and the soundtrack, even sourced from four track mags instead of six, sounds wonderful. This set comes with some decent supplements as well. Some may want to wait until Fox officially announces an exchange program, but taken as a whole (and with the caveats mentioned above, which may affect any individual's response to the release), West Side Story comes Highly recommended.
West Side Story: Other Editions
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West Side Story Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Blu-ray.com Confirms 'West Side Story' Fix - January 6, 2012
A large hue and cry was heard from classic film fans when it turned out the new Blu-ray release of the venerable multi-Oscar winning film West Side Story had an inexplicable fade out during Saul Bass' iconic opening Prologue graphics sequence at circa 4:40 ...
• West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Pre-Orders Now ... - July 12, 2011
Fox Home Entertainment has confirmed that they will release MGM's classic musical West Side Story in a 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition. The film will be available in both a four-disc limited edition set including the film and special features on two BD discs, ...
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