West Side Story Review
Ah, West Side Story. Everyone's seen this classic tale of two star cross'd lovers set against a backdrop of gang warfare in '50s New York - everyone except me, that is. Until this Blu-ray dropped through my letterbox I'd never watched this legendary multi-award-winning musical. I'd known of it, as I'm not averse to musicals; you'll find Grease, Singin' In The Rain, The Wizard Of Oz, The Sound Of Music and more on my shelves. Heck, I went and saw Wicked the other night. But I'd simply never gotten around to watching West Side Story. That sorry state of affairs has since been rectified, several times over in fact.
Originally conceived, choreographed and directed for the stage by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Steven Sondheim, this movie version was released in 1961 with the same creative team behind it, plus the addition of acclaimed director Robert Wise who was brought in to helm the dialogue scenes. The story, a variation on Romeo and Juliet, is simple enough: two warring street gangs on New York's west side decide to have a final fight to settle their scores. Riff, the leader of the 'native' Jets, tries to recruit his former lieutenant Tony (who left the gang and went on the straight and narrow) for the coming battle, while Bernardo, head of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, tries to keep his inquisitive little sister Maria out of harm's way. Tony reluctantly attends a local dance where both sides are in attendance, and as soon as he and Maria lay their eyes on each other they're smitten. But the big rumble will be going ahead in spite of their union, and the outcome will change their lives forever.
The first thing that struck me was the physicality of the piece, the dance moves being every bit as important as the music and the lyrics in telling the story. I actually found it difficult to watch initially, because I was not expecting this use of kineticism as storytelling. Dance is part and parcel of the musical tradition to be sure, yet it rarely breaks the confines of being an accompaniment to the songs - it isn't represented as an artform in and of itself. But from the very first sight of Riff and the Jets clicking their fingers as they survey their little piece of turf, it's clear that we're in very different territory for a musical. They gradually break out into an expansive routine which states that this is their part of town, without so much as a word being sung. They then encounter the Sharks, and a tit-for-tat series of balletic run-ins ensues which tells us everything we need to know about these two crews. Robbins was known as a hard taskmaster, and he wrung very last bit of passion and energy out of his performers, the results speaking for themselves on-screen. Unfortunately his quest for perfection stretched the nerves of the producers to breaking point, the film being an expensive large format Panavision 70 production, so he was removed and Robert Wise took over sole directorial duty. Robbins retained his co-director credit, so when the movie cleaned up at the Oscars (taking home a staggering 10 statuettes out of 11 nominations) he and Wise were both honoured with the Best Director win.
The cast is absolutely outstanding for the most part. As Maria, Natalie Wood's accent veers close to Speedy Gonzalez at times, yet her beauty and her earnestness carry her a long way. Richard Beymer is a little too vacant for my liking, as he captures Tony's idealism and bold attitude but not his internal conflict which makes him a tad one-dimensional for this viewer. Russ Tamblyn is great as Riff, strutting his stuff as well a leader should, and he's an all-action prescence during the dance numbers, displaying an astonishingly nimble set of flips and tricks. Bernardo, played by George Chakiris, is very much Riff's opposite, with a smoother, self-contained style that rarely leaves the ground but oozes Latin grace and sex appeal. The latter aspect definitely applies to Rita Moreno's performance as Anita, Barnardo's smouldering firecracker of a girlfriend. Her feisty chemistry with Chakiris is obvious, and their performance of America shows it to full effect. It's no wonder they both contributed to the film's tally of Academy Awards, each getting a Best Supporting Actor gong. The adult characters are cyphers who simply aren't capable of understanding these crazy kids, but the ever-reliable Simon Oakland puts on his best tough-guy act as the exasperated Officer Schrank.
The overhead helicopter shots of New York City - they're travelling westwards, naturally - which follow the main title are surprisingly eerie, and they establish that the show takes place in a very real environment. We then get a closer look at the run down New York streets that host these turf wars, which reinforces the fact that the movie is a contemporary piece dealing with contemporary issues. It's still heavily stylised of course, but the subject matter is downright gritty and far removed from from the more light-hearted musical romps that preceded this movie. The grand sets add to that real-world texture, comprising massive sections of dilapidated red brick tenements, shabby street corners, a huge motorway underpass and so on. That work would all be for nought if the lensing wasn't up to scratch, but Director of Photography Daniel Fapp did a great job of capturing the scale of the locales without ever losing sight of the people in them, and the metaphorical barriers which are continually placed in the way of Tony and Maria are a knowing touch (look at how they're separated by the bars on the fire escape at the end of Tonight). The Panavision 70 units were big and bulky, yet the camera work is often just as fleet-footed as that of the performers who are in front of the lens, and Thomas Stanford's editing proves to be equally adept at following the action (though Robbins' meticulously timed choreography no doubt helped).
West Side Story has a number of unique visual signatures & motifs. The title and credit sequences were designed by the legendary Saul Bass and are masterpieces unto themselves; the abstract lines of the main title dissolving into a shot of Manhattan Island, and the end credits look like very real graffiti scrawled on the city's walls and road signs. Incidentally, having the credits at the end of the film was something of a rarity at the time, most movies being front-loaded with the credits under the assumption that exhibitors would simply shut off the movie as soon as it finished. So real care had to be taken to make the end credits worth keeping the curtains open for, and Bass certainly achieved that. The ominous music that accompanies them also helps to maintain the mood, given the movie's tragic ending.
Colour is a key part of the look of the film, but it's never realised in a frivolous way. Every hue has a purpose, the earthier yellows and blues of the Jets' outfits in direct contrast to the sensuous reds and purples of the Sharks' costumes. That rich purple colour also dominates the mise en scene of the Puerto Rican characters, right down to a giant swathe of cloth in the sewing shop where Maria and Anita work. The crimson walls of the dance hall are a latent nod towards the burgeoning sexuality of these youngsters, and that carnal colouring gets employed in the same manner throughout the film; Anita is bathed in red as she prepares to receive Bernardo after the rumble, and notice how Maria replaces her white dress for a spicy red number once she's slept with Tony. Not everything is drenched in colour however, as the lack of it can be just as striking, such as the dark, shadowy parking garage set for Cool.
What I find so great about a film like this is that everything you see and hear is geared towards telling the story, and we're not looking at millions of dollars being thrown at the screen for the sake of it. That trend continues with the wonderful music & songs, full of stirring pieces like the dance hall medley and showtunes that you'll have heard many times over the years (yes, even if you've never seen the movie). Maria's rendition of I Feel Pretty is a sweet, uplifting scene, and it's no surprise that America is one of the most well-known numbers because it's the most purely enjoyable skit in the film, featuring two sets of characters slinging barbs at each other and having a damn good time doing it. Sondheim's lyrics are occasionally too self-conscious in terms of his writing ability, but they usually hit the right emotional beats at the right times and that's good enough for me.
West Side Story is now 50 years old and yet the subject matter still holds a lot of relevance today. One only has to look at what made the headlines in the UK over the summer, for example. While certain aspects of the film may seem twee all these years later, the underlying social problems highlighted by it are commonplace, such as racial tensions among immigrant communities (and the self-imposed segregation therein), the seductive nature of gang culture and the general uptick in juvenile delinquency. Or it could simply be that these poor misunderstood bundles of hormones need some form of release, which is the party line that the movie appears to take - the kids expelling their demons by way of the shuddering, staccato rhythm of Cool would certainly fit that notion.
But, regardless of whichever side of the swingometer you happen to be on, the film is an amazing piece of work.
Please note: Being a West Side Story virgin I did not notice anything wrong with the presentation of the Overture at the start of the film, but others on the interwebs have pointed out that the Overture now has an inexplicable fade to black just before the main title comes up. This flies in the face of every known presentation of the film, and is too smoothly executed to be a simple encoding error so it's got to be a problem higher up in the food chain. I've sent an email to Fox and I'm waiting for a reply.
This Blu-ray version also contains an Intermission which was part of the original 70mm roadshow engagements, but not the general 35mm release. The 2003 DVD had an option which allowed you to watch the movie with or without the Intermission, that option has since been removed for the Blu-ray.
There's been very little information released by MGM/Fox about what elements were used for this Blu-ray transfer, and at what resolution it was captured. If we follow the assumption that a large format element was used, then it stands to reason that the transfer would've been at 4K as a minimum. After Warner's astonishing remaster of Ben-Hur, I was expecting to be similarly wowed by West Side Story. I'm pleased, but not dazzled.
The film is presented in the correct 2.20 aspect. What's immediately obvious is that there's a lot of dupes cut in to the movie, in the form of reframed shots and the various opticals which are dotted throughout the show. No sooner do we get a scene that looks beautifully detailed, we get something that's very rough and edgy. The shot of Maria which does that psychedelic dissolve into the dance hall sequence is particularly horrible, but what can you do? It is what it is. The dupes often exhibit thick edge halos, but that's a consequence of the original printing rather than anything untoward on MGM or Fox's behalf. That said, there is the merest tickle of edge enhancement on the regular footage, and there's some slight shimmering at certain points, like the overhead shots of New York which open the movie.
When we're free of the dupes, the image looks terrific. There's barely a trace of any dirt or scratches, and there's no distracting gate weave. The colour is bold and vibrant, and is rendered with a pleasing consistency and no encoding problems. There doesn't appear to be any lean towards a more modern looking palette (you know the drill, all teal and orange) but I don't have a print sitting here so I can't tell you how faithful it truly is. Fine detail is tight and crisp, and you can see the makeup slathered all over the actors playing the Puerto Ricans. Natalie Wood is often lensed with a slightly filtered look, so don't mistake that softness for the DNR boogeyman coming to get her.
It might seem churlish to give this restored version an 8 out of 10, because when it's good it's very good, but it's just too uneven. The drop in quality for the opticals is built into the film, yet I can't just ignore them because the transfer does its job too well, if that makes sense, as the difference between the dupes and the regular footage is very stark indeed.
We're given a freshly mixed DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 presentation, coming off the back of a successful attempt to restore the original 70mm 6-track magnetic mix which had 5 screen channels and a single surround. An original 4-track mix was also discovered. As with the video transfer I cannot tell you which sound elements were used and why, because this information has not been made available. But here's my take on this Blu-ray incarnation.
Unfortunately this lossless 7.1 mix cannot reproduce the 5 screen channels of the original 70mm audio, because no sanctioned Blu-ray sound format has such capability for home viewing. We get the typical 3/4/0.1 layout, but thankfully the directional dialogue has been retained, with voices and vocals steered across the fronts where appropriate. However, it was somewhat fanciful of MGM to take a mono surround channel and turn it into 4, and the result is a complete waste of bandwidth because the surrounds are hardly utilised at all, apart from that whistle heard at the very start of the show.
Mixing shenanigans aside, this is a fine presentation. The music is clean and stable, and is spread wide across the front sound stage with ample support from the LFE channel. The vocals are strong and clear, with just the slightest hint of hardness during the shouted exchanges of "Mambo!" in the dance hall. Speech is fine too, although the sections with replacement dialogue have the typical duller, thicker sound. No hiss, clicks or pops to report.
The lossy Dolby Digital 4.0 audio - which I presume is Fox's way of preserving the original 4-track master - doesn't sound quite as vibrant as the DTS-HD mix, but it's still very good. It doesn't have the burden of 4 surround channels to fill either, so it's by far the purer of the two mixes in terms of original intent.
Disc 1 carries a Song Specific Commentary by Sondheim, plus the Pow! The Dances Of West Side Story movie mode. Sondheim's comments are fairly short which is a shame, as he comes up with some interesting insights. He points out the absurdity of a lyric like "it's alarming how charming I am", but that's hindsight for you. There's also a Music Machine feature, which is basically a superfluous set of chapter stops for the music numbers.
The Pow! movie mode switches to a separate video stream and plays a short clip, then goes back to the film. There's 19 minutes' worth of footage for 6 specific scenes in the film (Prologue, Dance At The Gym, Tony And Maria's Cha Cha, America, The Rumble, Maria's Roof Dance) and they can also be viewed separately. I preferred the latter option, as the movie mode is crudely implemented in this age of seamless PiP interactivity.
Disc 2 has some features old and new. A Place For Us: West Side Story's Legacy is a 2011 documentary divided into two parts. Creation And Innovation (15 minutes, HD) focusses on the forces which drove the show onwards, and A Timeless Vision (14 minutes, HD) looks at the film's cultural and societal impact, complete with the obligatory clip from Family Guy. The interviewees are mostly latter-day dancers and choreographers, with a sprinkling of West Side Story's most celebrated stage performers. (These same folks are present on the Pow! clips on disc 1.)
More interesting is West Side Memories (56 minutes, SD), held over from the 2003 DVD, which gives us a broad look at the making of the film and the troubles it went through, including the firing of Robbins and the replacement of Natalie Wood's vocals with those of Marni Nixon. Then we get a 5-minute clip of storyboard comparisons, standard stuff really, and four trailers (Theatrical, Academy Awards, Reissue, Animated, the first three in HD) round off the extras. The stills galleries from the DVD have gone AWOL.
West Side Story is a landmark film which pushed the boundaries of the American musical artform. Five decades later it doesn't just hold up, it stands tall as one of the best movies ever made. This Blu-ray presentation doesn't quite reach those comparatively giddy heights, however. The transfer looks great at times but it's slightly hamstrung by the original printing artefacts, and some modern anomalies have also left their mark. The sound is quite lovely in terms of quality and retains the directional dialogue, but sadly the 7.1 surround field is utterly wasted. The extra features aren't as wide-ranging as one might hope, yet there's just enough here to satisfy. Here ye be warned about the strange fade to black during the Overture, which is a small mistake that will surely be remedied at some point.