Winner of ten Oscars, 1961’s West Side Story is an iconic and indispensable element of America’s cinematic heritage. Available in an eye-popping new 50th Anniversary blu-ray edition, the film remains a surpassingly well designed and executed example of the Great American Musical. Through a synthesis of styles, the film echoes the great cultural melting pot of urban America post WWII, and uses an array of rousing set pieces to hint at the era’s growing unrest and generational division. Under the feel-good, entertaining veneer of Steven Sondheim’s witty lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ acrobatic choreography is a genuine whiff of the sour xenophobia that plagues the nation to this day. That ugly undercurrent drives a tragic convergence, complete with somber and sobering effects that survive the film’s condescending reductions.
Roughly based on Romeo and Juliet with a book by Arthur Laurents, West Side Story was originally produced on Broadway, where it enjoyed a successful, if not spectacular, run. Substituting for Montagues and Capulets are two rival NYC teenage street gangs: The Jets, comprised mainly of European immigrants, and The Sharks, whose membership hails from Puerto Rico. The film version reunited many of the creative principles, including stage director Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, whose operatic, omnipresent score provides the film’s narrative momentum. Robbins, a novice at filmmaking, turned to Hollywood veteran Robert Wise for technical support, and the two men were billed as co-directors.
This proved to be an effective partnership, as the film is no mere stage bound rehash. Robbins and Wise cleverly incorporate gritty Manhattan locations for a sprawling exposition that showcases Robbins’ thrilling choreography and Wise’s finely tuned cinematic blocking. Staging large group precision singing and dancing in actual funk-laden locales was innovative – and highly risky – in 1961, but the superb sequence stands as a monument to flawless planning and obsessive attention to detail. The mesmerizing energy of “The Jets Song” serves as a critical entry point into West Side Story’s surreal universe; a strange yet familiar land where crumbling tenements and rusty chain link fences reverberate with magical possibility.
The Jets are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), a street-wise punk whose dazzling dance moves are matched only by his caustic mouth. His turf is threatened by the emergence of The Sharks, relative newcomers whose suave leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) dresses as sharply as the steel of his switchblade knife. As tensions build between the two factions, Riff seeks the council of his predecessor Tony (Richard Beymer), a legendary street tough who has said goodbye to all that and, in an early example of movie product placement, now delivers Coca-Cola. Tony resists Riff’s efforts to lure him back into gang life, having found quiet legitimacy and steady paychecks to his liking. That night at a community center dance – watch for John Astin in a hilarious turn as an inept social worker – Tony spots a beautiful wallflower named Maria (Natalie Wood). Through a few Saul Bass designed opticals we see that the pair has been smitten with love at first sight. But Maria is the sister of Bernardo, sworn enemy of Tony and his friends, setting the table for West Side Story’s tragic path forward.
But along the way there’s plenty of fabulous production numbers, including the extraordinary “America”, featuring the great Rita Moreno as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita. Riff and Anita counterbalance Tony and Maria respectively, providing the dark sexual energy the script forbids the romantic leads. Beymer and Wood must remain pure as the driven snow, while Moreno and Tamblyn have all the fun. Especially Moreno, who comes very close to stealing the film and her charisma energizes the proceedings whenever the pace briefly lags. She and Chikiris figure prominently in the film’s most interesting photographic moment, as Wise shoots their staircase love scene in silhouette; no doubt in homage to his mentor Orson Welles.
In many ways, Wood and Beymer are the film’s weakest links and their love scenes often feel contrived and empty headed. Their duet “Tonight” still manages to be a show stopper, thanks to the strength of the original Bernstein/Sondheim collaboration. The singing of both actors is dubbed, with Wood’s voice supplanted by operatic soprano Marni Nixon. In fairness, Beymer is largely successful at being hunkily sincere while Wood’s evocation of a Hispanic accent is strong, and her line reading sparkle with consistency and conviction.
Natalie Wood has always been something of a special case and a problematic assessment. Her penetrating, doe-eyed beauty was often more distracting than supportive, and her performances at times seemed shallow and unfocused. In general, her persona seemed better suited to the old studio system of glamorous actresses – indeed, she began her career as a contract player to Warner Brothers – than the independent, anarchic Hollywood of the 1960s and 70s. It was a square peg issue that would dog her career in later years. In her last film Brainstorm (1983), she seems like an anachronism, as out of place opposite Christopher Walken as Greer Garson. Still, Wood was the first talent to receive three Oscar nominations by the age of 25, an achievement that has yet to be equaled, and her work in West Side Story is as impressive for its bravery as its skill.
As West Side Story pursues its predetermined path to conclusion, a couple of undeniable facts emerge. For one, just about all the good songs are in the film’s first half, rendering the final reels with an unrelenting shadowy gloom. And, to paraphrase a recent Presidential candidate, the film is just too damn long. An extraction of about twenty minutes would not have damaged coherency in the slightest. How many shots of athletic young men shimmying up wire fences does one really need? But in the tradition of Grand Opera, West Side Story is a larger than life production with sheer bulk considered a necessary component by its creators. To the distracted, multi-tasking audience of today, the film’s lugubrious final act will likely be a squirm inducer and an impediment to its full appreciation as a priceless bit of Americana.
Recently, Fox has been producing some of the best blu-ray burns in the business and West Side Story continues the hot streak. Simply stated, the disc looks amazing. Colorful and sharp as one of Bernardo’s razors, the images achieve a depth that rivals 3-D. Of course, there was superb source material to work with, as West Side Story was filmed in the old Todd-AO format, creating a 65mm negative with an aspect 2.20:1.
One of the film’s many Oscars went to veteran DP Donald Fapp for cinematography – back when color was a separate category – and I’m sure the late Mr. Fapp would approve of the presentation here. The Koyaanisqatsi style aerial views of Manhattan that open the film are so graphically real you’ll get a few tummy butterflies, while the colorful graffiti that adorns the gray walls and streets pops with vividness. The night scenes, and there are a lot of them, buzz with neon-cued shimmer. Theatrically lit, every scene offers a full range of values, but the blacks retain detail and purity while the brightly colored wardrobes create tremendous separation. Even those who aren’t particularly enamored with the musical genre will find the disc an enjoyable and sumptuous visual feast; its impeccable quality worthy of an American classic.
The track is no slouch either, despite internet rumors of short cuts taken in its creation. Presented in DTS-HD 7.1, the blu-ray sounds as impressive as it looks. Bernstein’s score is a study in sonic contrasts, ranging from stark whistles and finger snaps to lushly layered orchestration, and viewers will feel fully immersed in each note. The track possesses an extraordinary liveness, with exceptional soundstage and hair-raising power. Frankly, I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my investment in expensive Paradigm speakers last year, but the sonic detail of this disc has wholly restored my confidence.
This deluxe edition contains three discs: The film in HD, the film in SD, and a disc of bonus material.
Play Movie in "Pow! The Dances of West Side Story" Mode
With this mode engaged, the dance sequences are interspersed with expert commentary from Susan Stroman, Adam Shankman, Chita Rivera and several other choreographers and performers. This feature will be primarily of interest to those already highly familiar with the film.
Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim
This valuable supplement features the witty and insightful recollections of Sondheim. He discusses his constant struggle to simplify his lyrics and offers surprisingly self-deprecating assessments of his work. Sondheim’s comments are sharp, articulate and full of advice young writers and composers would do well to heed. Highly recommended.
Available only on the SD disc, this jukebox style interface allows instant access to every song in the movie.
A Place For Us: West Side Story's Legacy
This 30 minute collection of interview snippets attempts to place West Side Story in historical context. We hear from Stephan Sondheim, Debbie Allen, Lin-Manuel Mirada, Mikhail Baryshnikov and a host of luminaries on how the production has influenced them personally and professionally. Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jaime describes how excited her father was to compose Latin-inspired music, while conceding that the original Broadway show was too much a of downer for the audiences of 1957. Allen describes the racism faced by the touring company, and how the show was considered too controversial for her hometown in Texas. The show’s continuing influence is cited by one of the producers of Glee, and the piece overall makes a compelling case for West Side Story’s enduring relevance. Recommended.
West Side Memories
This hour-long documentary is a thorough and detailed analysis of the genesis of West Side Story ; both the play and the movie. Archival audio from Jerome Robbins discusses the challenges of assembling the high profile production team, and the many false starts and blind alleys pursued along the way. Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents go in-depth on the new approaches in storytelling that evolved during the creation of the show, as West Side Story was designed more as an opera than a traditional musical. Film buffs will enjoy the discussion of the division of labor practiced by Robbins and Wise on the set, and the visual ideas that resulted from their unique collaboration. Rita Moreno gives an amusing account of the challenges Bernstein’s eccentric time signatures posed for the dancers and offers intriguing insight into Robbin’s unconventional methods of choreography. In total, this documentary gets a bit deep in the weeds for casual viewers, but stage and film professionals will find it fascinating.
Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage
As the title suggests, this 5 minute supplement is a selection of drawings by storyboard artist Maurie Zuberano, followed by the pertinent scenes from the film. Zuberano’s free flowing, impressionistic style was a bit unusual for this type of assignment, but clearly his visualizations were closely followed by the filmmakers and set designers.
Four trailers are included. Two are fairly traditional assemblies, featuring some of the film’s most exciting scenes. Another deals with the film’s worldwide acclaim and contains footage of gala opening nights in Hollywood and London, with red carpet shots of Queen Elizabeth, James Garner and Pat Boone, of all people. The fourth is the most interesting of the lot; an animated, music only teaser presumably intended for non-English speaking audiences. All are standard definition from rather rough prints, and will increase your appreciation of the main feature’s skillful blu-ray transfer.
West Side Story is such a densely packed entertainment viewers of every taste and inclination will find something laudable and involving within its multiple levels. Adrenaline junkies will delight in its crackling energy and raging momentum. More reflective viewers will find the film a fascinating look at a time when even nascent racism was laced with gee-whiz innocence. And diehard romantics will be swept away by its story of passion and ill fated love. Indeed, it’s the seamless melding of these attributes that makes West Side Story a true American classic, and an enduring part of the Nation’s cultural legacy. It is a film that offers its viewers the opportunity to deeply explore or the freedom to simply enjoy. Just like life in A-Merry-Ca.
Reviewed by David Anderson