MGM // 1961 // 152 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 15th, 2011
The most acclaimed motion picture of our time!
"When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way! From your first cigarette to your last dyin' days!"
For years, the Jets have been the top street gang on Manhattan's West Side. However, their authority has recently been challenged by the Puerto Rican Sharks, and that means war is a-brewing. As respective gang leaders Riff (Russ Tamblyn, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and Bernardo (George Chakiris, The Young Girls of Rochefort) prepare for their big "rumble," former Jet Tony (Richard Beymer, Twin Peaks) begins a secretive romantic relationship with Bernado's sister Maria (Natalie Wood, Miracle on 34th Street). Is there any chance that the Jets and Sharks might be able to come to some sort of peaceful understanding? If not, is there any hope that a forbidden romance involving two people on opposite sides of the gang war can survive?
I was really hoping that re-watching West Side Story on Blu-ray would finally persuade me of the film's greatness. To be sure, there are undeniably numerous great elements in the film, but the picture as a whole has never really worked too well for me. There's something irritatingly sanitized and naive about the whole thing, and I'm not talking about the fact that a bunch of gang members are singing and dancing. I have no problem accepting the fact that this modern updating of Romeo and Juliet is being presented as a musical (brought to the stage in 1957 and then whisked to the big screen in 1961), but rather with the fact that it glosses over pretty much every aspect of gang life.
Honestly, one can find a way to rationalize and forgive most of the individual instances of this: the characters using euphamisms like "bugging" instead of actual swear words, the gang members all look clean-cut enough to take home to your mother, the violence is completely bloodless, much of the "street slang" used in the dialogue feels like a middle-aged white man's approximation of how kids talk, the gang members sometimes seem less driven by legitimate desire to do something than by a need to follow the established Shakespearean plot, the film's themes are frequently delivered in a silly, heavy-handed fashion, and the film's conclusion manages to both shy away from its bolder source material in timid fashion and deliver a series of events that would undoubtedly leave real-life gang members laughing hysterically. I can find a way to accept these elements individually, but that doesn't change the fact that the final result is a film that frequently feels like a silly, painfully dated tragedy. The finale's emotional weight is the sort that is likely to leave appropriately touched viewers nodding their heads and saying, "Such a shame, all this gang violence," when it should be rendering them speechless.
Still, there's a reason the film remains so highly-regarded some 50 years after its release: West Side Story contains some of the finest dance sequences ever committed to film. Jerome Robbins' vibrantly athletic choreography joins forces with Leonard Bernstein's snaky, searing, punchy music to create something that stomps all over the more conventional, old-fashioned sort of movie musical dance sequence. The film's balletic opening sequence is arguably the strongest stuff it has to offer, as the Jets and Sharks storm through the streets looking to raise a ruckus. Bernstein's music and Robbins' jerky choreography have a certain violent undercurrent; there are quite a few moves that veer much closer to street fighting than Swan Lake. The lyrics of Steven Sondheim also add a good deal to many of these sequences, as there's a clever elegance in many of his songs that is severely lacking in the actual dialogue. Sondheim is actually considering what his characters are saying; Ernest Lehman's screenplay mostly seems interested in getting everyone from point A to point B.
The dancing is uniformly excellent, but the actual performances are all over the map. Rita Moreno is unquestionably the highlight as Maria's close friend Anita, as she brings a vibrant energy and persuasive dramatic punch to her scenes which is never less than believable. She won an Oscar for her performance, as did Chakiris for his charismatic work as Bernardo. However, the leads struggle to keep our interest. Natalie Wood seems poorly cast as Maria, having trouble maintaining her hokey Puerto Rican accent and distracting when lip-syncing her numbers (actually performed by old pro Marni Nixon). Even so, she's better than Richard Beymer, whose lovestruck Tony has slightly less charm than a chunk of granite. Tony and Maria's romance should the electrifying emotional fuel which sustains the story; instead it simply lays there in the foreground as filler between musical numbers.
West Side Story (Blu-ray) is one of 2011's more controversial hi-def releases, as it contains a very prominent mistake during the opening credits: Saul Bass' distinctive skyline pattern should dissolve into the main title, but instead the skyline fades to black and the main title fades in. Fox is not recalling the discs that have been released, but simply offering a "running fix," meaning that you'll eventually be able to return your copy of West Side Story (Blu-ray) for a corrected replacement. As such, proceed at your own risk when purchasing this release. Otherwise, the 1080p/2.20:1 transfer is solid, if not exactly the resplendent home video experience it ought to be. There are some shimmer issues early in the film, along with a few sequences which look disappointingly soft. However, colors are bright and have a lot of pop, detail is excellent the majority of the time and blacks are impressively deep. It's much better-looking than ever before. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track is pretty solid, though it's taken from the older four track mag masters rather than from the recently discovered and restored six track mag masters (finances were cited as the reason for this). So, it's not as good as it could have been given that a superior track exists, but it's okay on its own terms. Why only okay? For some reason, those memorable whistles which open the film (and are supposed to bounce left and right) have not been mixed correctly: the whistles don't bounce anywhere, they just sit right in the middle. Otherwise, the songs have an impressive amount of punch (even if they sound just a tiny bit pinched on occasion), the dialogue is clean and the sound design is well-captured. Basically, we're dealing with a mostly-good release marred by some unforgivable errors.
Supplements are a blend of old and new material, though the new stuff is a little underwhelming: a scene-specific audio commentary with Sondheim (in which he continues to shake his head in dismay at his own lyrics), a sporadic picture-in-picture "Pow! The Dances of West Side Story" track, a jukebox featuring all the musical numbers and a so-so featurette called "A Place for Us: West Side Story's Legacy" (30 minutes). The best supplement is the older documentary "West Side Memories" (56 minutes), which offers a fairly comprehensive look at the making of the film. You also get some storyboard-to-film comparisons, a trailer and a DVD Copy. It should be noted that most of the supplements are included on a second Blu-ray disc, which is impressively generous of Fox.
West Side Story is a frustratingly clunky update of Romeo and Juliet enlivened by some of the best song-and-dance sequences the genre has to offer. Those who enjoy the film even more than I do will undoubtedly be tickled to own the film in hi-def, but the significant audio and video errors this Blu-ray offers should be carefully considered before a purchase is made.
Both the film and the Blu-ray commit some serious crimes, but both offer just enough merit to earn a verdict of not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 152 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Music Machine
* Storyboard Comparisons
* DVD Copy