Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: West Side Story (1961)
Studio Line: MGM - The Screen Achieves One of the Great Entertainments in the History of Motion Pictures

Takes a giant leap from Shakespeare's with a musical score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins under the direction of Robert Wise.

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor-George Chakiris; Best Supporting Actress-Rita Moreno; Best Cinematographer; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Music. Nominated for Best Screenplay, 1962.
DVD: Widescreen 2.20:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 36 chapters; rated NR; 152 min.; $24.98; street date 10/20/98.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer; 8 Page Booklet featuring Trivia, Production Notes, The Making Of.
Purchase: DVD | West Side Story: A Novelization - Irving Shulman | Score soundtrack - Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/D-

When I first started my attack on DVDs that contain Best Picture winning films, I grabbed them in a haphazard manner; whatever movie I cared to see at the time is the one I watched. After a while Van requested that I take them in reverse-chronological order, and I agreed, since I saw no reason not to do them that way.

Unfortunately, I now have discovered one problem with the plan: it sticks me with a slew of musicals in a row. Granted, it didn't absolutely have to be that way, but I haven't stuck to the reverse-chronology perfectly; I got 1963's Tom Jones before 1964's My Fair Lady, and due to shipping oddities, I also got this review's title in question, 1961's West Side Story, prior to MFL.

Because I watched TJ out of sequence, that means I'll have four musicals in a row. Granted, TJ wouldn't have provided a good respite, since I intensely disliked the movie, but at least it would have spaced out the pain. I've said it before, I'll say it again: I don't like musicals. This doesn't mean I loathe each and every one of them. I find them quite enjoyable in the form of Disney animation or fantasy such as The Wizard of Oz, and even a few "real-life" flicks like Singing in the Rain work well for me.

However, for the most part, I just can't stand musicals. As such, I wasn't looking forward to West Side Story, and its first few minutes - which feature lots of flouncing and posing from some pretty-boys who are supposed to be members of rival New York gangs - didn't seem too promising.

The end result remained that I didn't much like the movie; the style is not my cup of tea, and I don't enjoy the songs. However, I did respect it as a well-crafted piece of work that seems to offer a strong example of the musical genre. Objectively, I found WSS to provide a fairly compelling update on Romeo and Juliet. It updates the action to New York City of the early Sixties and creates a situation in which it's not the Montagues and the Capulets who block the romantic affair of our two leads; it's differing races and backgrounds as acted out through two gangs, the white-bread Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Honestly, it never seemed especially clear why these two groups hated each other so much, but are racial motivations ever terribly sensible?

In any case, against that backdrop we find Tony (Richard Beymer), one of the leaders of the Jets, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of head Shark Bernardo (George Chakiris), two young cuties who meet and quickly (really quickly) fall in love. Not surprisingly, this interaction doesn't sit well with the others, and the dissension intensifies as the film progresses.

Since R&J has been ripped off innumerable times over the centuries, we can't look to the story as anything special; it's a different take on the old saw, but it sticks pretty closely to Shakespeare's basic tale. As such, the film develops its unique qualities from the musical aspects of the project, and it's clear those are quite special. Although I do dislike musicals, I respected the work in WSS because the songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are clever and memorable. Sondheim's wordplay was bright and vivid, and Bernstein imbues the whole thing with some strong melodies.

Adding to the thrill is the choreography by director Jerome Robbins. The dancing occurs frequently and it displays a creativity and an exuberance that make it stand out as something special. Robbins also features a very distinct visual pattern that makes the movie distinctive; there's a starkness and abstract quality to the look of the picture that stand out as something different.

All of the preceding statements came from Objective Colin, the one who can see why so many people like WSS. Subjective Colin, on the other hand, found too much about the project that was dopey for him to enjoy it. First of all there's the sheer goofiness of all these singing and dancing pretty boys. It's awfully hard to take these tough guys seriously when they're flouncing about and singing cute little tunes. Granted, gangs from 40 years ago might not seem all that scary in today's environment anyway, but the added hindrance of the musical environment lessens their threat even further. The danger that's supposed to exist in these characters is too important a facet of the plot to have it turn silly, but unfortunately that's what happen; a guy can only look so scary when he's chirping about how great it is to be a Jet.

I also wasn't wild about many of the performances. Actually, I thought most of the performances were too broad and lacked substance. That's part of the problem with musicals, especially those that have been adapted from the stage; in front of a live audience, performers have to be loud and emotive to make sure the crowd can get the material. Unfortunately, many times these tendencies aren't modulated for the big screen and the actors come across as overly broad.

However, some of the worst performances in WSS came from folks who I don't believe ever did the show on the stage. Both Beymer and Wood simply seem very bland and unconvincing; they're an attractive couple - Wood really was a gorgeous woman - but their acting appears flawed. Wood especially runs into trouble since she plays outside her race; she makes one of the least convincing Latina women ever. It doesn't help that the singing for both Wood and Beymer had to be doubled by others.

Still, fans of the genre will find much to like about West Side Story. I'm an avowed hater of musicals, but the piece offered enough pleasures for me to find it tolerable at least. I don't think I'd pick it for Best Picture but it's a well-constructed film that holds up well after nearly four decades.

The DVD:

West Side Story appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.20:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not completely flawless, the film looks quite terrific, especially when one considers its age.

Sharpness usually appears fairly crisp and accurate, but some mild softness intrudes upon the image at times. Surprisingly, this tendency doesn't seem correlated to the wideness of the shot; both wide takes and close-ups can display some murkiness at times. However, it's minor and not a terrible distraction. Some moiré effects appear, and I also detected moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws are wonderfully few and far between. I saw occasional white speckles, and there's a few odd blotches, but that's about it, and considering that WSS is approaching its fortieth birthday, the movie seems terrifically clean.

Colors also looked fantastic. The print stocks of the era tended toward heavy, very saturated hues, and WSS is no exception. This means that tones occasionally seem a bit overly rich and thick. However, for the vast majority of the film, colors look amazingly vibrant and lush, with fine definition and brightness. Black levels also appeared deep and dense, and shadow detail was appropriately dark without evidence of excessive heaviness. A lot of Oscar-winning films haven't received very good treatment on DVD, but in regard to its image, WSS is an exception; it looks absolutely wonderful.

Although it's also very strong, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of WSS doesn't quite live up to the movie's picture. The soundfield seems good, especially in the forward channels. The front three speakers display a broad and well-defined sonic image that does a nice job of locating various sounds. Mainly it's the music that swells in the side channels, but quite a lot of effects and even some dialogue blend in as well, with some decent panning on occasion. The surrounds mostly feature very gentle reinforcement of the music, but some effects come from back there at times; these also stick to the soft side of things, but they add to the ambience, especially at times such as during the "rumble", where the surrounds contribute to the atmosphere.

Quality seems a little more questionable but was usually good. Dialogue sounded iffiest, with a fair amount of variation. Although speech always appeared intelligible, it displayed inconsistent quality; some lines were natural and relatively warm, while others came across as somewhat harsh and hollow. All levels were easily within the realm of acceptability for such an old movie, however. Effects also sounded a bit flat and thin but they appeared reasonably clear, and the music was wonderfully rich and dynamic. Clearly the mixers invested all of their effort on the songs, which is where it belonged, and the results are great. Some of the singing suffers slightly from the same lack of crispness that can affect speech, but the music itself displays good clarity and fidelity. There's a little flatness inherent in an old recording, and tape hiss seems more prominent than I'd like, but overall, the score appears very clean and strong. That factor alone makes the soundtrack of WSS a winner.

In fact, the only area in which the DVD of WSS fails regards its supplemental features. As so often is the case, here's another Best Picture winner that includes almost no extras. We find a theatrical trailer, but not even the original one; this promo is clearly for a reissue of the movie. I think it's terrible that such well-regarded films don't get better treatment, but hopefully this will improve in the future.

At least West Side Story was handled nicely where it matters: in regard to picture and sound, both of which are outstanding. (Hey, I love supplements, but not even I will argue they're more important than the quality of the film itself.) I didn't care for WSS, but that stemmed more from my dislike of the genre. Being as objective as I can, the movie itself had some flaws but seemed generally well-executed and compelling. It's not a film I'd ever want to see again myself, but fans of musicals will doubtless love it and they'll be exceedingly happy with the quality of the DVD.

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