Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Starring Natalie Wood, Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakris
Take Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s tale of tragic lovers, and transplant it into New York’s West Side in 1960, swap the Capulets and Montagues for Jets and Sharks, throw in a dollop of racial tension and a healthy helping of song and dance and you’ve got a recipe for ten academy awards. It’s been fifty years since the release of West Side Story and now its time for the Jets and the Sharks to rumble again, this time in high definition on Blu Ray.
I’ve enjoyed more of Shakespeare plays than I haven’t, ditto for musicals, but Romeo and Juliet has always been decidedly in the did not enjoy pile on top of that the idea of gangs trying to act tough while dancing around and singing songs just always seemed absurd. For those reasons I have never had any desire to see West Side Story. Since this Blu Ray and DVD combo is celebrating the films anniversary edition I figured why not see what all the fuss is about. Now I know.
The Jets are a bunch of kids just barely big enough to call themselves a gang. They are proud of the little corner of Manhattan’s West Side that they have been able to carve out for themselves and aren’t about to cede it to anybody. Moving in on their streets is a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. The Jets are mostly the children of immigrants themselves but of Polish, Italian and Irish decent which adds a dimension of racial tension to their sense of violation. After a skirmish that draws Jet blood the Jets decide that they have had enough and it’s time to take care of the Sharks once and for all. It turns out that even in gangland there are rules so before the Jets can go to war with the Sharks they have to hold a war council. They decide to throw down the gauntlet at a neighborhood dance that night. Gang etiquette demands that the Jets be represented at the war council by Riff, played by Russ Tamblyn, and his lieutenant Tony, played by Richard Beymer. This is a bit of a problem for the Jets since Tony has taken a job and isn’t hanging out as much any more. Riff knows that even though Tony hasn’t been hanging around that if the Jets need him he will come through and takes off to convince Tony to come to the dance. Tony’s job isn’t much, just clerking at Doc’s candy store but he senses that big changes are just around the corner for him and that his future doesn’t include hanging around on the streets with the Jets. Riff finally manages to convince him to come to the dance and prophetically suggests maybe he will find what he’s looking for at the dance.
When Tony shows up at the dance he spots Maria, played by Natalie Wood, across the floor and suddenly all thoughts of Jets and Sharks are forgotten. Luckily for Tony, Maria is as taken with him as he is with her. It’s love at first sight, but as luck, not to mention the narrative, would have it Maria is Bernardo’s little sister and Bernardo, in an Academy Award winning performance by George Chakiris, complicatedly is the leader of the Sharks. When Bernardo spots Tony dancing with Maria he is predictably upset and the Sharks leave. Before they leave though Riff manages to get a word with Bernardo and the war council is set to take place at Doc’s later that night. At the war council Tony manages to convince the rivals to settle their differences with a one on one bare knuckle fight, the Jets best against the Sharks best, instead of an all out rumble. When Maria finds out that Bernardo will be fighting for the Sharks she convinces Tony that he must stop the fight. Tony is willing to do anything for Maria and runs off to do what he can to stop the fight with disastrous results. This is based on a Shakespearean tragedy after all.
The amazing thing about West Side Story is that the songs and the dance are so intrinsically entwined with the narrative. Every lyric and every step propels the story just as much as any piece of dialog. I know diddly about dance but here even I can understand what it’s trying to convey. Of course you can’t have dance without music and Leonard Berstein’s compositions not only fit the choreography like a glove they are a perfect counterpart to Sondheim’s lyrics. These songs have become part of the American backdrop. You know these songs whether you have seen the movie or not. This is of course an adaptation of a stage performance but it never feels that way. Robert Wise’s direction combines gritty location street shooting with hyper stylized sets often in the same numbers creating paradoxically a feeling of a well grounded surrealism. The film is over two and a half hours long but it moves like a locomotive, there is very little fat in this story. From the prologue to the end credits Wise and Robbins have collaborated to create a true classic. The tour de force of Wise’s direction, Robbin’s choreography and Berstein and Sondheim’s songs bulldoze any imperfections. And there are a few, the biggest has to be the performances of the leads. It’s not that Beymer and Wood’s performances are that bad it’s just that they are totally outclassed by Moreno and Chakiris, but overall West Side Story lives up to it’s reputation. It is a true classic.
The film is presented in wide screen 2.20:1 format with an AVC encoding at 25MBPS. The detail is amazing, the opening scene is a helicopter shot of the island and you can not only plainly make out the cars on the streets but you can make out a fair amount of detail on the pedestrians. You can see the blades turning on the ventilation fans on top of the buildings. The contrast is sharp but not so that you lose detail in the shadows. The color is saturated and the skin tones seem a little unnatural. Yes I understand that the Sharks are supposed to be darker skinned that the Jets, but they often appear almost sooty. I don’t know if this is just an artifact of the way the film was shot and processed but at least it’s consistent. Other than than the slightly odd skin tones the color is great. I never noticed any aliasing or moire or any other digital artifacts.
The audio is presented in 7.1 DTS-HD and sounds great. The music, dialog and foley are all mixed to perfection.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The package comes with the movie on Blu Ray and DVD and a second Blu Ray of bonus features is included. The discs come in a standard Blu Ray case with a cardboard slipcase. The artwork is based on the iconic poster from the movie. It is simple and effective. There is not a full audio commentary but Stephen Sondheim is there to talk you through each song. There is also an option to view featurettes of each dance sequence inline with the film. This turned out to be a great way to see the featurettes in context. The bonus disc includes two featurettes about them movie and a montage comparing storyboards of the film with actual film footage. The features that are included are worth taking a look at but this is the 50th Anniversary Edition would a full commentary be too much to ask for?
Overall (Not an Average) 9/10
I had always avoided West Side Story, the idea of singing and dancing gangs just seemed a little silly to be frank. Somehow it’s not. West Side Story manages to make it seem like the most natural thing in the world. This has catapulted to my second favorite movie adaptation of a Shakespeare play, right behind Strange Brew, which I will readily admit says more about my taste than West Side Story.
The Movie 9/10
The Video 8/10
The Audio 9/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 7/10
Overall (Not an Average) 9/10