Racial prejudice, gang violence and even murder may have seemed like strange bedfellows for the musical genre before West Side Story (1961) hit Broadway. Afterwards audiences would never look at either in quite the same way. This contemporary spin on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the ghetto was fleshed out on stage by scenarist Arthur Laurents. Coupled with an electric Leonard Bernstein/Jerome Robbins’ score and scintillating choreography, West Side Story became an exuberant showcase for social commentary. Regrettably, the stage show did not garner the respect it deserved. In fact, reviews were mixed. West Side Story was not even nominated for a Tony Award! But in the four years between its Broadway debut and the cinematic experience a strange thing happened. A few of the show's songs were picked up by pop singers and turned into hummable hits on the jukebox. The net result was that by the time West Side Story made its way to the screen it was already an instantly recognizable commodity.
After purchasing the rights to produce West Side Story as a film for a then staggering $375,000, the Mirisch Company was taking no chances. In translating from stage to screen co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and screenwriter Ernest Lehman resisted the urge to ‘open up’ the story. Save the mesmerizing opening overhead shots of New York City and the prologue dance sequence (both shot on the location now occupied by Lincoln Center) the rest of the film was made entirely on back lot sets and sound stages. Ernest Lehman restructured the narrative and order of the songs considerably while producer Saul Chaplin made the executive decision to over dub the vocals of virtually everyone in the cast. The producers fired Jerome Robbins mid-way through filming because they felt he had been neglectful in allowing the production to go over budget and over schedule. Hence, Robert Wise completed the last third of the shoot alone.
The story opens with a conflict between rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets on New York’s west side. The Jet’s leader, Riff (Russ Tamblyn) wants a 'war council' to settle a conflict over turf rights once and for all, a request that Shark’s leader, Bernardo (George Chakaris) is only too happy to oblige. To garner support for his rumble Riff decides to look up Tony (Richard Beymer) who has left the gang to work in Doc’s (Ned Glass) Drug Store. Although Tony refuses to re-enter ‘the life’ as a retired gang member in good standing he does agree to attend the local high school dance in order to express his solidarity with the Jets. At the high school gym he meets, and inadvertently falls in love with Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Natalie Wood). Their brief introduction is interrupted by Bernardo’s threats. But Tony can’t help himself. Neither can Maria. They secretly meet under Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita’s (Rita Moreno) watchful eye. But their union is doomed when Tony, in an attempt to stop the rumble, murders Bernardo after he has already killed Riff.
Tony returns to Maria and confesses his crime. However, her bitterness does not outweigh her love for him. Sympathetic to Maria, Anita's heart is turned to stone after the Jets taunt and nearly rape her inside Doc's Drug Store. As retaliation Anita tells the Jets to inform Tony that Maria has been murdered by her jealous boyfriend, Gino. The message brings Tony out of hiding. He and Maria are briefly reunited in the playground before Tony is shot and killed by an avenging Sharks' gang member. The blood feud at an end, Maria challenges both sides with her hatred to find a new common ground where harmony rather than bloodshed will prevail.
West Side Story is an iconic bit of stagecraft rivetingly transferred to the expansive Panavision screen. It's Leonard Bernstein score soars, yielding a rich mélange of almost operatic social commentary. This stings as much as it inspires. Robert Wise's direction is brilliantly on point - effortlessly blending together the light fantastic with hard-hitting melodrama and coming up a winner on both fronts. Even today, West Side Story's curious melding of street violence and musical ballet never seems strained or out of place. Wise, who began his career as an editor for Orson Welles and later, a director of low budget Val Lewton horror movies, is one of a handful of truly iconic directors from the 20th century. His list of accomplishments, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music and The Sand Pebbles will likely remain unequalled. Although hardly Puerto Rican Natalie Wood makes the most of her innocent portrayal of Maria. If somewhat stilted, the film is not particularly hindered by Richard Beymer’s wooden interpretation of Tony either. But in retrospect the most exciting bits of casting remain George Chakaris and Rita Moreno. When these two take to the roof tops to stamp out the defiant and controversial ‘America’ their taut atmospheric sexuality is palpable and electric.
Were it only the case with MGM/Fox Home Video's new Blu-ray we would truly have a reason to stand up and cheer. Sadly, a few faux pas prevent West Side Story from attaining brilliance on home video in this latest 50th Anniversary incarnation. For starters, the opening Saul Bass credits inexplicably fade to black just before we get the title credit that dissolves from Bass' impressionistic lines to the helicopter shot of Manhattan. This is an unforgivable screw up and one that further suggests the team responsible for mastering Fox/MGM's classic library don't know what they're doing or, for that matter, simply don't care. It would have been so easy for them to pull a reference print off the shelves to see that NO fade out/fade in is present in the original camera negative.
The next glaring mistake involves the overhead shots of New York City. These are plagued by severe edge enhancement and moire patterns, rendering their once breathtaking vantage utterly moot. This sort of sloppy mastering is incomprehensible and frankly, inexcusable. The studios have had a long enough gestation period in the art of digital mastering for the home video market place to eliminate ALL edge enhancement issues - PERIOD! Throughout West Side Story there are many 'optical' SFX shots - artistic dissolves and scene changes that continue to look grainier than the rest of the film stock. These have been ever so slightly tweaked but still appear slightly problematic compared to the rest of the transfer.
Now for the good news. Apart from the aforementioned errors, West Side Story has never looked more vibrant on home video. The 1080p scan exhibits a vibrancy and faithfulness to its 70mm color film stock that is breathtaking. Details in flesh, clothing and background information have a dimensional quality. Occasionally, contrast levels appear slightly bumped up, but if you can wrestle your way through the other problematic issues described herein, there is much to appreciate.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack presents yet another short sightedness on the part of MGM/Fox. The original six track stereo masters were discovered last year and completely restored. But these elements were not used for the mastering of this Blu-ray release. Instead, the studio reverts to a repurposed DTS-HD audio using the same four track elements employed on their previously issued DVDs. What?!? Yes, sad but true. Are the results of this repurposing better than on the DVD? Absolutely and without question. Are they the absolute best that they can sound on home video? Arguably, and emphatically, NO! For a 50th Anniversary I expected more.
MGM/Fox have taken the time to produce two brief featurettes on the cultural impact of West Side Story - cumulatively clocking in at around 40 min. For the rest, extras are all direct imports from the DVD release of a few years back and include 'Memories of West Side Story'. There's also theatrical trailers and a rather ineffectual commentary to wade through. MGM pads out this box set with a CD 'tribute soundtrack' featuring various artists singing some of the songs from the film. Aside: it would have been so much more meaningful if MGM/Fox had given us a remastered CD of the film soundtrack instead! There's also a hard cover booklet that is short on 'making of' info, and glossy reproductions of poster art. Ho-hum!
My advice - wait! MGM/Fox has recently announced that they intend to address at least some of the issues in their Blu-ray mastering and re-release West Side Story at a later - as yet undisclosed - date. I should point out that the wait might be interminable. Yours truly was promised a replacement disc 2 years ago. I’m still waiting!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)