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DVD SAVANT

West Side Story
50th Anniversary Edition
Savant Blu-ray Review


West Side Story
Blu-ray
MGM / Fox
1961 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 153 min. / 50th Anniversary Edition / Street Date November 8, 2011 / $29.99
Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley, Tucker Smith, Tony Mordente, David Winters, Eliot Feld, Bert Michaels, David Bean, Robert Banas, Anthony 'Scooter' Teague, Harvey Evans (Hohnecker), Tommy Abbott, Susan Oakes, Gina Trikonis, Carole D'Andrea, Jose De Vega, Jay Norman, Gus Trikonis, Eddie Verso, Jaime Rogers, Larry Roquemore, Robert E. Thompson, Nick Covacevich, Rudy Del Campo, Andre Tayir, Yvonne Othon, Suzie Kaye, Joanne Miya, John Astin.

Cinematography Daniel L. Fapp Production Designer Boris Leven Film Editor Thomas Stanford Assistant Director Robert Relyea Production Artist Maurice Zuberano Visual Consultant Saul Bass Photographic Effects Linwood G. Dunn Music Supervisors Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green Stage Producer Harold Prince Choreographer Jerome Robbins Lyricist Stephen Sondheim Original Music Leonard Bernstein Written by Ernest Lehman from the play by Arthur Laurents Produced by Robert Wise, Walter Mirisch Directed by Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise


Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Revival companies have been performing the popular West Side Story almost continuously since the middle 1960s. Recently, the late co-author Arthur Laurents re-staged it on Broadway. As with musicals like The Sound of Music new local versions often follow the song order of the movie, not the play. The Mirisch Corporation got almost everything right when they produced their Oscar-gobbling 1961 70mm road show adaptation. The quibbling over casting has mostly died down now that the contributions of actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, both basically non-singers and non-dancers, are fully appreciated. MGM and its distributor Fox have been a long time preparing West Side Story for Blu-ray for its 50th Anniversary. More on the issues around this new HD release appear in the evaluation section, below.

If West Side Story seems even more titanic an achievement than ever, it's not just because today's movie musicals are so lacking -- the road show attraction was produced on a scale only dreamed about in today's practical Hollywood. Musicals were already fading fast by the 1960s. MGM's Technicolor diet of six originals per year had fizzled half a decade before, its turf usurped by literal stage adaptations from Rodgers and Hammerstein. West Side Story isn't a screen original but it was rethought for film in visual terms by some impressive personnel: Robert Wise, known mostly for efficient thrillers that came in under budget, and Jerome Robbins, an incredibly talented Broadway choreographer who strained the schedule and United Artists' checkbook in search of a perfect wedding of film and dance. With a youthful and energetic company of mostly stage dancer-actors, led by a perfectly cast Natalie Wood, West Side Story is a sight to behold.

On the West side of Manhattan, street gangs Anglo (The Jets) and Puerto Rican (The Sharks) clash over turf. Jet leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) seeks a showdown with the 'spics', and he wants lapsed member-turned working boy Tony (Richard Beymer) to re-enlist for the anticipated rumble. Tony would rather seek a better way of living, while Shark leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) has his own set of problems. His newly arrived sister Maria (Natalie Wood) needs protection and counseling, but all Bernardo gets from his girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) is criticism for his bad attitude about America. The two sides come together at a dance at the Gym to choose a battleground. But Tony and Maria meet on the dance floor, and a certain star-crossed classic tragedy is about to be repeated.

West Side Story is a superb musical, one of the best combinations of music and dance ever put to film. This seemed to have been the underlying quest of Gene Kelly's career at MGM - -as soon as he was successful enough to push his own ideas, his musicals steered toward complex ballet sequences. Jerome Robbins apparently had the same filmic goal. There are plenty of musicals that display some of the charm of original Broadway choreography, such as Fosse's Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game, but West Side Story seeks to re-invent the stage dancing for the camera. The guts of the play are the dancing and the music, and both have been heavily altered.

The most famous obstacle was to portray the teenage hoodlums dance ballet on city streets, and not be laughed off screens. The music takes care of that problem - Bernstein's Prologue makes everyone feel lighter on their feet. Once that's successfully overcome, the audience has no problem accepting the film's other stylistic stretches.

The Anglo gang is less like any real gang, than it is an anachronistic backtrack to the East Side Kids. Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey must have felt robbed to see their culturally reviled comic schtick suddenly become trendy in the hands of Broadway writer Arthur Laurents. With typical nicknames like 'Action', 'A'Rab', and 'Joyboy', these guys are stylized exactly like The Bowery Boys.  1 The Jets are hostile, anti-social losers. They're sexually active (if not obsessed), and sing about drug use and alcoholism, vices attributed to their parents' generation. Their main occupation, in Leo Gorcey terms, is mocking authority while defending their turf against all comers ... it's essentially Gangs of New York minus the stovepipe hats. In this cold-war gang war the fight is not for plunder or working rights, but for issues as basic as territory and as abstract as hate itself. It's primitive barbarism in the capitol of Western civilization.

Soon after the Broadway show opened in 1957, a New York Sunday-morning religious television program invited Jerome Robbins and his cast to appear. Between the musical numbers, Robbins fielded questions about the play's philosophy. Robbins responded with a chestnut of an answer that distilled the essence of 50s alienation. The disaffected youths in the play were an expression of the malaise and anxiety fostered by a hostile and corrupt world of nuclear bombs, vast consumer wealth and limited opportunities. Either Robbins had just read an issue of Mad Magazine that satirized what was wrong with 'today's kids' with an identical rationale, or Mad's writer rose early on a Sunday and caught Robbins' appearance. Either way, the disaffected Anglo punks of West Side Story pay lip service to contemporary anxieties, while behaving as if they belonged in a 1930s melodrama.  6

Laurents, Bernstein and Robbins ran smack into a good idea when they conceived the warring 'enemy' gang as Puerto Rican immigrants. Hollywood and Broadway had been shoehorning Civil Rights themes into their repertoire since the late 40s, but this was a rich vein to be mined. The Latin theme allowed Bernstein to soak the show in the most modern, danceable rhythms. And instead of dragging in platitudes about ethnic injustice, Laurents was able to question the myth that the Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants. Since each new ethnic wave endures decades of oppression, fighting for acceptance and equal status, the Sharks are split by gratitude for their new country, and resentment against its humiliations and injustices.

Laurents' social sympathies are definitely on the side of the Sharks, even though they take second place in both casting and story prominence. The Jets' slick jazz and ballet dancing is exciting but show-bizzy, like Russ Tamblyn's ostentatious tumbling. The Sharks, however, have innate tradition and a natural grace on their side. Their dancing is twice as fluid and dynamic as that of their Anglo opposites. It expresses an unforced identity that the Anglos lack -- the Sharks know who they are, while the Jets are in an aggressive search for themselves. Anita may mock Bernardo's old-country paternalism and scorn for America, but they are the only things holding his underdog community together against the hostile Jets.  2

Laurents is also specific about ethnic and racial hatred, which, of course, was considered daring / foolish / courageous for a musical show in 1957. The mostly Anglo cops are 100% on the side of the Jets. Bernardo has to buck the economic system, the hostile white gangs, his mocking girlfriend, and the racist police as well. It is no wonder that he sees himself as a warrior.

West Side Story presents the attempted rape of Anita as a racial hate crime and not a sexual thrill. She's targeted because of her low status -- as a person of color and a woman, to boot. Television and movies in urban settings would soon rely on similar content to provide some torn clothing for the heroine and titillation for the poster art, but Laurents' rape scene in the candy store is central to his thesis. It is interesting that the very limited role of Anita is actually the strongest character in the film. Her energy and 'life-spirit' animates the America number. She's the one who is brought the lowest -- her mate murdered, her honor destroyed. Anita loves America, and gets misery in return.  4

The high point of the movie is the America song and dance number. It expresses everything there is to be said about the immigrant experience and the social injustice that comes with economic freedom. It celebrates the American Dream while simultaneously condemning it. As lousy as conditions may be for the underclass, the U.S. is far and away the best place to be. West Side Story is the souring of the American Dream wedded to Romeo and Juliet, and it expresses both themes with equal success.

The nice surprise of the film West Side Story is that its love story isn't a disaster. Natalie Wood's imitation of a Latina is better than acceptable, and is helped by the stylization of those around her. It's a defining role for the talented, misused actress. The much-maligned Richard Beymer is also excellent. If he seems too much of an emotional simp, it's because viewers who relate only to the stylized aggression of the rest of the cast aren't accepting of a stargazing romantic as their hero. Yes, Tony does play Freddie Bartholomew to the wiseacre Leo Gorceys around him. We get the idea that if it weren't for Riff, the Jets would cut Tony up and toss him into the Hudson.

There's a lot of controversy about the roles of directors Robbins and Wise on the film. Without Robbins, the intensity and excellence of the Prologue, America and Cool might have been compromised -- each of these amplifies Bernstein's music so that it's hard to imagine the stage version competing for impact. Robbins had the reputation of a sadistic genius, driving his dancers to physical ruin and the production schedulers into apoplectic fits. Robert Wise is the cool technician who can soar when given great material, yet sometimes has little to contribute when a movie needs sensitive direction for its actors. Wise was a tough company man. His popularity with the Mirisches owed more than a little to his ability to bring location pictures in under budget, something few directors in Hollywood were capable of doing.

From what Savant has seen the domineering Robbins used his clout to expand his role beyond his original deal as musical sequence director. The un-egotistical Wise, always attuned to what might make the picture better, gave Robbins leeway to poach on the non-musical scenes. Depending on what one hears, Robbins' passions either contributed a stronger feel to the portions of the film he influenced, or he wasted time and money on endless reshoots and on-the-set rethinks. The professional stage sensibility is that the more one rehearses a show, the better it gets, so undoubtedly Robbins' twentieth filmed version of a scene (in 70mm, no less) would be an improvement. Wise's Hollywood instincts preach that pre-prep is the time for all that rehearsing and 'discovery', and the director's job is to let things happen with what he's prepared, and adjust as best he can within the limitation of a few takes. If it doesn't work as one initially puts it in front of the camera, then one isn't a director, but a wasteful artist sculpting away while 300 expensive collaborators and rented equipment stand idle.  3 Wise probably saw the general excellence of Robbins' material and helped run interference for him, until the producers couldn't take any more.

Non-fans of Robert Wise point to the raised level of mawkishness in the film's second half, where a lot of uncontrolled emotions are barely contained by Wise's well-composed, perfectly timed but less expressive camera. This is a hard call, as the last third of the show, the part mostly directed by Wise alone, is slower and less musical, with the funeral ending particularly so. To restructure the play for the screen, adapting screenwriter Ernest Lehman shifted all the light numbers that followed the rumble, to earlier positions. Lehman applauds these changes as screen wisdom (and whines that his was the film's only Oscar nomination not rewarded) but his alterations served to flatten the experimental nature of the play into a linear 'Hollywood' dramatic line. In the play, the placement of the Officer Krupke after the rumble expressed the Jets' lack of moral development in the face of violence and disaster. They don't care. In the film, they're all shaken to their souls. At the conclusion they transform into choirboys, hauling away Tony's body.

West Side Story is a major visual break from both the MGM and Rodgers & Hammerstein sensibilities. The graphic sense is acute, with a destroyed urban landscape (half real, half constructed) framing the action in terms that are almost post-apocalyptic. There are few plants of any kind visible in the whole show. Raw colors and striking angles give the film its life -- they compliment the limitless dynamism of Leonard Bernstein's music. I finally saw West Side in 70mm, and it looked very good. But the old 35mm Technicolor print we showed at college was phenomenal. The film's combination of music, movement and color has a transporting effect - for once, when the producer claims that his picture was 'the most exciting experience on film', it isn't hype.


MGM's long awaited Blu-ray of West Side Story measures up as a major disappointment. Average film fans may see little to complain about, but this new presentation will have those familiar with the picture and its various video releases scratching their heads in puzzlement. The good news is that this is the first home video release that uses the original Intermission Card. Not many of us have seen that. The bad news is that the transfer and encoding of West Side Story has nagging technical issues and a mistake so glaring, it's difficult to account for.

A two-second black "hole" has been erroneously added to the well-known Overture opening, the pattern of lines that changes color with Leonard Bernstein's music. I don't feel like adding to the Internet tempest over this issue but it is a near-unforgivable, glaring mistake that should have been caught and dealt with one way or another. It's not some passing detail that might slip through the Q.C. process, but something that would leap out at anyone at all familiar with the movie.

Just as bad is a problem that appears to have been introduced in the authoring process, a shimmer that adds gross aliasing errors. Thin lines on the Manhattan aerial rooftops crawl instead of slide across the screen, with a strobing effect. Many shots of chain link fences produce moiré patterns. None of these things should be happening in HD; it's like somebody accidentally toggled a switch the wrong way when the final master was locked down. Instead of a state-of-the-art disc, we have something that looks like a mistake. It reminds me of NTSC discs poorly converted from PAL.

These problems are most noticeable during bright daylight scenes, which are mostly early in the movie. With some questionable color choices aside (little matching to a film print or previous approved transfers is in evidence), the bulk of the movie looks and sounds quite good. The Dance at the Gym has always had color issues, and it hasn't gotten any sharper, either -- we can see a profound improvement in color and focus occur across a cut when Maria and Co. enter. But America and all the nighttime scenes seem largely unaffected.

All this is of course a sad state of affairs. West Side Story is a difficult movie not to enjoy, even when projected upside down and purple. Don't expect a perfect Blu-ray rendering, but... Fox has created a corrected Blu-ray with the Overture issue fixed, but no exchange problem has yet been announced. Personally, I recommend that viewers keep a lookout for special archival 70mm film screenings of this show. MGM's beautiful (I mean it) restored 70mm prints carry the recently re-discovered original 6-track directional mix from 1961. It sounds appreciably different and more exciting than anything I've heard before. The new Blu-ray and the special digital screenings being presented lately all have the same (very good) mix made from a four-track mix-down.

MGM's 50th Anniversary Edition contains two Blu-ray discs and a third Standard DVD of the full feature (the same new transfer) but offers only a couple of new extras. The one I liked the most is a selected commentary by Stephen Sondheim, in which he offers his thoughts about his songs. This was Sondheim's first musical. The commentary skips from song to song, and Sondheim tells us something about each one. When he gets to I Feel Pretty he practically apologizes for the rather articulate English lyrics he wrote for Maria, which he now thinks are completely inappropriate and the work of a show-off songwriter. Also included is a "Music Machine" playback selection that only plays the songs.

A second Blu-ray Disc begins with a new set of featurettes that let some cast members and various celebrity artists tell us how inspired they were by West Side Story. A storyboard comparison is present as well. The long-form 2003 docu West Side Memories is here; it tells the story of both the play and the film with input from most of the original talent, including Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince and Arthur Laurents himself. It also has behind-the-scenes home movies taken by dancer-actor Robert Banas.

A third DVD disc is also part of the set; it is the new transfer, not an older encoding.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, West Side Story Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Fair --, due to serious mastering problems.
Sound: Excellent
Audio: English, Spanish, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Supplements: Song-specific commentary by Stephen Sondheim; The Dances of West Side Story in Movie-Viewing Mode; songs-only playback option; Three new looking-back featurettes; long-form making of docu West Side Memories; storyboard comparison.
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: November 16, 2011

Footnotes:

1. ... the Dead End Kids, East Side Kids, and Bowery Boys movies hold up extremely well. TCM zeroed in on them a couple of years back, and the two or three I caught were surprisingly funny. I think the street smarts of these New York punks carried over to wartime films, which populated trenches and bomber planes with wisecracking ethnic jokers, as if they represented the core of the American spirit. West Side Story capitalizes on the same unconscious associations.
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2. Compare the Jets and the Sharks as they battle in the Dance in the Gym: the Jets twist and bob their heads in showoff, showboat moves designed to say how cool they are. The Sharks' dance moves are all subtle, classy gyrations gleaned from flamenco and other Latin dance styles. The Jets make a gaudy spectacle of themselves on the dance floor. The Sharks transcend their underdog status to become mythic representatives of a proud culture, mutating once more in a foreign setting. It's no wonder that Latins love West Side Story. Arthur Laurents presents them favorably, even when individual lines sound more appropriate for a Jewish context: "What am I - cut glass?"
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3. A cameraman once told me the Producer's nightmare vision of shooting in 65mm: Every time the giant cameras roll, the producer imagines a fast conveyor belt pouring $20 bills into a roaring furnace. After West Side Story, you didn't see the Mirisches encouraging anyone to shoot in 70mm, not even the film stock-economical Billy Wilder. 7
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4. Sam Fuller is critically noted for several films that proclaim that the Americans most eager to defend their country, are those least likely to benefit from the sacrifices they make.
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5. The docu was Savant's major pride-and-joy cutting assignment for 2002, so beware my perspective in these comments. Savant also cut the musical storyboard-scene comparison.
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6. The comic article was one of Mad's heights of quality satire, as it compared the supposed lack of values of teenagers with the complimentary vices of 1950s adults. I remember it inspiring a healthy desire to seek the truths underlying the cultural messages I received. For a few years, Mad was a wonderfully political magazine.
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7. From Correspondent "B", 11.20.11:

Dear Glenn: "After West Side Story, you didn't see the Mirisches encouraging anyone to shoot in 70mm, not even the film stock-economical Billy Wilder."

Well, they didn't stop John Sturges from shooting The Hallelujah Trail in Ultra Panavision 70... Forgive me if I've made this point in a previous note.

It's a shame that HAWAII wasn't shot in 65mm, though. Best, Always. -- B.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.

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