West Side Story appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.20:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The image had some issues but usually held up well after 50 years.
The image’s major concerns arose during its first few minutes. As has already been documented around the Internet, a weird goof occurs in the opening credits. As they near their close, the screen abruptly fades before it comes back a few seconds later. That shouldn’t happen; we should see a color shift but not a fade to black.
I don’t know how this happened, but apparently MGM is taking ownership of the goof and will make corrected copies available. I don’t know how long it’ll take for this to happen – and how many consumers will be upset enough with the mistake to bother – but I’m happy that fixes will supposedly be made.
In addition, the post-credits shots looked a bit rough. The overhead view of New York tended to seem a little flickery and unstable, with a ropey quality evident. Parts of these moments looked great, but the motion didn’t come across well.
Happily, the image largely stabilized after this and offered a satisfying presentation. Sharpness appeared very good. The movie consistently came across as nicely accurate and distinct. A smidgen of softness showed up in a few wide shots, but the majority of the movie came across as well defined and crisp. After the opening, jagged edges and shimmering didn’t occur, but I witnessed some light edge haloes at times. As for print flaws, they were non-existent, as no blemishes marred the image.
Colors presented a strength. The film offered a nicely broad palette, and the tones looked very good. The hues usually came across as rich and vibrant, and they really leapt off the screen at times. Black levels also appeared dark and distinct, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not overly thick. The smattering of issues here knocked down my grade to a “B”, but this was still an impressive transfer for the most part.
The DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack of West Side Story also worked well for its age. The soundfield seemed good, especially in the forward channels. The front three speakers displayed a broad and fairly well defined sonic image that nicely located various sounds. Mainly music swelled in the side channels, but quite a lot of effects and even some dialogue blended in as well.
The speech seemed a little too speaker-specific, but the other elements melded fairly nicely, and I noticed some decent panning on occasion. The surrounds mostly featured gentle reinforcement of the music, but some effects came from back there at times. These also stuck to the soft side of things, but they added to the ambience, especially at times such as during the "rumble", where the surrounds contributed to the atmosphere.
Quality seemed 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 edgy. All lines remained 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 quite rich and dynamic. Some of the singing suffered slightly from the same lack of crispness that could affect speech, but the music itself displayed good clarity and fidelity. I noticed a little flatness inherent in an old recording, and tape hiss seemed a little more prominent than I'd like, but overall, the score appeared very clean and strong. That factor alone made the soundtrack of West Side Story a winner.
How did this Blu-Ray compare with the Special Edition DVD from 2003? Audio was fairly similar; the lossless DTS track showed a little more vivacity, but it couldn’t do a lot to upgrade the 50-year-old material.
Visuals demonstrated the more obvious improvements. Even with the transfer’s minor problems, the Blu-ray seemed more precise, vivid and clean. It’s a step up in quality.
The Blu-ray mixes new extras and old components. Everything on Disc One is exclusive to the Blu-ray. We open with a song-specific commentary from lyricist Stephen Sondheim. He chats across 14 of the flick’s musical numbers for 19 minutes, 41 seconds of material. That total should let you know that Sondheim doesn’t talk during the entirety of the tunes, so he comes and goes frequently.
During his brief comments, though, Sondheim delivers a lot of good information. He tells us about the song specifics as well as other elements of the show’s creation and execution. Sondheim’s remarks are consistently engaging and useful; it’s too bad we only get about 20 minutes from him, as a full-length commentary would’ve been great.
Another song-related piece, Music Machine acts as a form of chapter search. It allows you to jump to any of the movie’s songs – or watch them all in one big lump via “Play All”. That runs one hour, 25 minutes, seven seconds, and would make for an unusual take on the flick. I don’t have any real interest in “Music Machine”, but maybe someone else will like it.
For the final Disc One component, we get a collection of eight featurettes under
• “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story. All together, these fill 19 minutes, 12 seconds and provide notes from assistant director Robert Relyea, composer Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, directors/choreographers Susan Stroman and Adam Shankman, Baryshnikov Arts Center artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance author Deborah Jowitt, choreographer/producer Zach Woodlee, dance/theater critic Sylviane Gold, Somewhere:The Life of Jerome Robbins author Amanda Vaill, choreographer Joey McNeely, and actors Yvonne Wilder, Debbie Allen, Chita Rivera, and Nobuku Miyamoto. As expected, the participants dissect the dance numbers of Story. We get a good take on the choreographic choices in these tight, informative clips.
More extras show up on Disc Two. The main attraction is a new documentary called West Side Memories. This 55-minute and 55-second piece mixes movie clips, archival photos and film from the set, and mostly new interviews. In addition to some 1960 radio bits with co-director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, we get modern chats with Sondheim, Relyea, playwright Arthur Laurents, 1957 Broadway production co-producer Hal Prince, Dance With Demons author Greg Lawrence, executive producer Walter Mirisch, producer/co-director Robert Wise, and actors Richard Beymer, Tony Mordente, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, and Harvey Hohnecker. (Actor George Chakiris remains oddly absent, though I’ve seen modern interviews with him on the subject, so he’s clearly not aversion to discussing Story.)
“Memories” packs a lot of good material. The participants cover the project from its original stage origins through different elements of the production. We learn about different subjects like locations, specific character choreography, the division of labor between the two directors, the relationship between some of the actors, Robbins’ firing, and many other issues. We get to hear some of the original vocals that were later dubbed by others; most interestingly, this includes snippets of Natalie Wood’s take on Maria’s songs. (While she didn’t sound bad, she clearly wasn’t nearly good enough for her real voice to appear in the movie.) “Memories” jumps through some subjects a little too quickly, but it covers a lot of ground and provides a solid encapsulation of the West Side Story experience.
Next we get a storyboard-to-film comparison montage. This runs four minutes and 50 seconds and eschews the standard split-screen format. Instead, it shows the storyboard and then runs the film clip. Fans should enjoy this brief glimpse at some West Side material.
A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy runs 29 minutes, 28 seconds and offers info from Debbie Allen, Chita Rivera, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Adam Shankman, Jamie Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Susan Stroman, Joey McNeely, Zach Woodlee, Nobuko Miyamoto, Yvonne Wilder, Deborah Jowitt, Sylviane Gold, Amanda Vaill, Robert Relyea, West Bank Story director Ari Sandel, composer/lyricist/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, conductor/longtime Leonard Bernstein colleague John Mauceri, orchestrator Sid Ramin, Something’s Coming, Something Good: “West Side Story” and the American Imagination author Misha Berson, West Bank Story composer Yuval Ron, and actor Jaime Rogers. The collection of featurettes discuss aspects of Story as well as its legacy and enduring life. Some of this falls into general praise, but the comments tend to be specific enough to add good interpretation.
The trailers area includes four ads: an unusual animated trailer as well as a reissue promo and two more from the original release. Most interesting of the bunch, the “original issue trailer” presents shots from the flick’s premiere.
A third disc provides a DVD Copy of West Side Story. This offers a new transfer and doesn’t simply recycle one of the previously-released versions of the film. That may be viewed as a bad thing, for the DVD shows the same problem during the prologue that shows up on the Blu-ray. It omits extras other than “Music Machine”.
After two screenings, I can’t quite classify myself as a fan of West Side Story. I find the film to offer a well-executed piece of work, but it just doesn’t do much for me. Nonetheless, I can see that it represents pretty much the apex of the movie musical. The Blu-ray delivers erratic but generally solid picture and audio along with a pretty good set of supplements. I won’t claim this is a flawless release, but I’m satisfied with most of it.
To rate this film visit the review of the Special Edition DVD of WEST SIDE STORY.