MGM // 1961 // 153 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // April 1st, 2003
Winner of 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture 1961
In 1955, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerry Robbins came together to create the classic, unparalleled American musical -- a modern retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in the heart of gritty New York, exemplifying the growing concerns of juvenile delinquency and racial hatred. The show opened on Broadway in the Fall of 1957 to critical acclaim and ran for 772 performances before Hollywood came calling. To celebrate this film's more than 40-year history MGM has created an impressive two-disc collector's edition, worthy of the highest praise.
The Jets are one of the toughest street gangs on Manhattan's West Side, but their power and turf are about to be challenged by the city's newest troublemakers -- the Puerto Rican gang known as The Sharks. Riff (Russ Tamblyn), leader of the Jets, is not about to go down quietly and rallies his troops to meet the challenge. For added insurance, he calls on his best friend -- and former Jet -- Tony (Richard Beymer). As the two gangs plan a street fight to settle territorial dispute, Tony falls head over heels for Maria (Natalie Wood) -- sister of the Sharks' leader Bernardo (George Chakiris). When the rumble takes an unexpected turn, it signals the beginning of the end of their passionate affair. Despite dire warnings from Maria's surrogate sister Anita (Rita Moreno), the two continue to search for a way to remain together. How do star-crossed lovers from two different worlds find peace when the people who are supposed to care about them the most won't stop hating long enough to let them be?
Having spent the past three months on a Chicago stage with these characters, I wasn't sure what my reaction would be to seeing the film. Surprisingly enough, it has given me new appreciation for the relevancy and impact of the story, as well as a tremendous respect for what this creative team was able to bring to the screen more than 40 years ago. Directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise have done more than transfer the original stage production to film. They have enhanced the story and scope, so as to make this much more than a theatrical experience.
The stage production has an intense build from the opening prologue encounter between the Jets and Sharks to the climactic rumble that ends Act One. Act Two then deals with the aftermath and the effect it has on everyone involved. Working with a bigger canvas, screenwriter Ernest Lehman developed a dramatic new flow -- one that doesn't require an intermission or comedic musical numbers to break the tension. As result, you have the same story told in a different yet equally compelling way. For example "Officer Krupke," which provides comic relief from the tense emotion of the stage production's second act, has found a more natural home in the early playfulness of the film -- bookending "America," the Sharks lament on New York racism (now incorporating boys as well as the girls), and "Tonight," the balcony love scene between Tony and Maria. In return, "Cool," the stage's pre-rumble instructions from Riff to his gang, has found a deeper significance on film as the Jets grief-stricken regrouping after his death. In addition, "I Feel Pretty" now serves as a more light-hearted lead-in to Tony and Maria's pseudo-wedding in "One Hand One Heart," instead of its original place as the transition to Tony's post-rumble return in "Somewhere." These changes, along with many other minor ones, all serve to unify the emotional processing these characters experience following the rumble. In other words, they are now free to grieve without having to sing and dance.
There are many reasons why this film won 10 Academy Awards and the performances account for two of them. George Chakiris -- Best Supporting Actor -- epitomizes the suave charm and intense anger of a frustrated young Puerto Rican immigrant. Bernardo is the father figure, doing the best he can to provide a good life for his family and friends, but it's not enough. Rita Moreno -- Best Supporting Actress -- is not only his muse, but also his equal. Her passion ignites the screen at all times, from trading barbs and dancing with Chakiris to being consumed by hatred at the hands of the Jets. Anita is a woman wise beyond her years whose advice often goes unheeded and in the end a high price winds up being paid. The three remaining members of the principal quintet -- Natalie Wood as Maria, Richard Beymer as Tony, and Russ Tamblyn as Riff -- are all effective but somehow unspectacular. Wood pulls off the best performance of the three, despite appearing too old for the role. Her effervescence exhibited around Beymer's Tony deserves an award in itself, considering the two greatly disliked each other off-screen. Tamblyn's Riff exhibits the raw leadership command of the character but lacks something in depth. You never pick up the same intimate connection with his character that you get from observing Chakiris' Bernardo. Finally, Beymer's Tony is a great disappointment. Granted, the character is not one of the more interesting figures in Broadway or film history, but his performance is a cardboard cutout. Never for a minute do you believe he was ever a member of a street gang, or that his love for Maria will transcend any obstacle placed in his way. Both gangs, while somewhat nameless and faceless, provide tremendous energy and an engaging backdrop to an otherwise age-old story.
MGM has done a spectacular job in preparing this special edition. The 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer has taken cinematographer Danny Fapp's original Panavision 70 print and given it a whole new life. I would venture to guess you have never seen West Side Story look this good. With little or no evidence of any disruptive digital tampering (and only the rare appearance of dirt), Boris Leven's production designs come through in deep and rich reds, yellows, and blues. One need only look at Maria's bedroom scene during "Somewhere" to see what I mean. The blacks are as equally impressive in both the rumble and during "Cool." The newly remixed and remastered 5.1 audio track will provide new appreciation for Bernstein and Sondheim's operatic score. Granted, the dialogue remains grounded in the center channel, but the main three speakers and even the sub-woofer receive a healthy workout. As if a beautiful transfer were not enough, MGM puts the "special" in special edition with more bonus features than you can flip a switchblade at.
West Side Memories -- 56 minutes
The cornerstone of Disc Two, capturing interviews with cast (Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, Tony Mordente, Harvey Hohnecker) and crew (director Robert Wise, playwright Arthur Laurents, producer Harold Mirisch, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, screenwriter Ernest Lehman), incredible 8mm home movies shot on location by Jet boy Bob Banas, and a wealth of behind the scenes stories. For instance, co-director Jerome Robbins was fired from the picture more than halfway through filming due to production delays and cost overruns. Robert Wise later brought Robbins back to assist during the editing process and to accept the Academy Award. In another interesting twist, associate producer Saul Chaplin hired professional singers to re-record the vocals for each of the principal's musical numbers. Outtakes of the original voices have been included to illustrate why.
How often do you see a special edition DVD released with a 150 page scrapbook? Includes a introduction by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a complete copy of the shooting script, a reproduction of the original lobby brochure, and photos, memos, and reviews from the film's 1961 release. This is an exquisite keepsake for any diehard West Side fan.
Storyboard to Film Comparison -- 5 minutes
A musical montage of production designs dissolving into actual shots from the film, showcasing the painstaking detail Robbins and Wise went to in preparation for filming. Interestingly enough, for some reason, all of the characters in the storyboards appear to be Asian.
Several versions of original trailers for the film (each running several minutes) have been included, although the marketing team could have come up with a better tagline than the one that was ultimately used -- "Unlike other musicals, West Side Story grows younger." Huh? You can see what an amazing job was done on the transfer given the condition of some of these trailers. I could have done without seeing the "animated version" which is nothing more than the balcony scene graphic art flying on and off the screen.
Production Designs, Storyboards, Photo Galleries
More than 200 stills have been compiled into a carefully cataloged collection of cursor driven galleries. It'll give your finger quite a workout, but if you are a filmmaking buff it's worth the time and effort.
Original Intermission Music
Kind of a lame special feature, but you have the option of turning on the original intermission interlude -- which is basically an orchestral version of "I Feel Pretty" -- which plays between Chapters 16 and 17.
West Side Story is far from your standard Hollywood musical. Instead, it is a profound social commentary on the human condition. Replace the Jets and Sharks with any two warring ethnic, religious, or political factions around the world and the message holds true. Embracing hatred on any level brings devastation to not only those involved but to anyone and everyone around them. While the price tag ($39.98) may preclude some purchasing this special edition, do yourself a favor and rent it. This is one of those rare films that should be required viewing by everyone.
MGM is congratulated on giving West Side Story the rich and impressive historical treatment it has so long deserved. Other studios can and should learn from this example. This court hopes to see more classic films receive such care and attention. Case dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2003 Nominee
* 2.20:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* West Side Memories -- 56 Minute Retrospective Documentary
* Storyboard to Film Comparison
* Original Theatrical Trailers
* Production Designs, Storyboards, Photo Galleries
* 150-Page Collectible Scrapbook
* Official West Side Story Site