Originally released 50 years ago, West Side Story went on to win 10 Academy Awards. Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, the film took home Oscars for best film, director, editing, music, supporting actor, supporting actress, art direction, cinematography, costume design, and sound. Watching the film now on Blu-ray (it is being released as both a standard three-disc set and in a collector’s edition), it is immediately apparent why it did so well – the film is still brilliant today, populated with great music and wonderful performances.
More than many a stage musical turned film, West Side Story‘s look and feel retains something innately stage-like about it. While the emotions of the characters and the music itself pull the viewer in, never do the locations (nor dance sequences) convey a high degree of realism. The songs and dances are all about the performance and the locations feel created to allow that performance to take place (even when the locations are real).
As for the story, as many are aware, it is a take off on Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet. The film is updated to take place in the (then) current day, and on the streets of New York as a gang of descendants of European immigrants, the Jets, fight a gang of newly arrived Puerto Ricans, the Sharks. The Jets are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), but it is an ex-Jet (as much as anyone can ever get out of a gang), Tony (Richard Beymer), who plays the Romeo role. The Sharks are led by Bernardo (George Chakiris), and it is his younger sister, Maria (Natalie Wood), who plays the Juliet part.
The theatricality of the film is instilled in the opening scene, as the Jets establish their playground turf by snapping their fingers and dancing. Although such an establishing moment could, potentially, undercut the menace of this gang, it rather serves to create the mood for the entire film. It isn’t that the gang is less menacing because they dance, it is simply a New York in which people dance up and down the streets. From there, through now classics like “Jet Song,” “Maria,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” once West Side Story starts going it never stops. The pace is beautifully modulated switching from slower songs to faster-paced ones and serious moments to more lighthearted scenes, but whatever is taking place, the film never ceases to be engaging.
Although it is Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood who get top billing in West Side Story, simply watching the film, one can’t help but be entranced by both Chakiris and Rita Moreno, both of whom took home Oscars for their parts. Moreno plays Anita and sings “America,” “Quintet,” and “A Boy Like That.” Wood is certainly enthralling as Maria, but when Moreno sings and dances it is impossible to look away.
At 153 minutes, West Side Story isn’t exactly a short film, but it plays far shorter than that. The tale may never get terribly more deep than the love story between Tony and Maria (love beyond reason at first sight) and the hatred between the Sharks and Jets (hatred for simply living in the same neighborhood), but it doesn’t particularly matter. There is enough explanation, emotion, and expressiveness in each and every song sung, that while the spoken words may not convey a lot of depth, every other piece of the film more than makes up for that. From start to finish, first song to last song, West Side Story is a great movie.
The new Blu-ray release of the film looks wonderful. The colors, level of detail, and cleanness of the print indicate the care that was took with the restoration. The heat of the summer comes through in every scene, as does the tension on the faces of the characters. Textures on clothes, in backgrounds, and all around are readily apparent, and black levels are very good. Unfortunately, there is also a noticeable flicker for much of the film. While the sound is crystal clear and the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix puts the viewer in the center of this beautiful musical, there does appear to be something of a problem with the levels. If one sets up the volume so that average spoken dialogue plays at a appropriate volume, loud musical numbers blare and startle while words in soft ones are almost wholly inaudible. It may be crisp, it may be clean, and it may be clear, but it is not perfect.
West Side Story‘s three-disc release contains the feature film on Blu-ray and DVD. The main Blu-ray disc also has song commentary by Stephen Sondheim, the ability to watch each of the musical sequences alone, and discussions of what went into the dance sequences. This last piece can either be seen from within the movie or separately. The second Blu-ray disc features storyboard-to-film comparisons, and two featurettes. The first of these is called “A Place for Us: West Side Story‘s Legacy” and the second is “West Side Memories.” Both of these pieces are retrospectives dealing with the film (and what took place during it – famously, Jerome Robbins was fired during production) as well as the cultural outgrowth. Neither is particularly brilliant or a must watch, but both hold one’s attention and do provide interesting tidbits here and there.
It is virtually impossible to say enough good things about West Side Story, odds are that it can win over many of the most skeptical individuals. No, the Jets don’t appear particularly tough and the way things go sideways really ought to have been prevented, but the singing and dancing and beauty of the tale more than make up for all of that. West Side Story is, simply put, a fantastic musical.