West Side Story Blu-ray Review!

Release Date: November 15, 2011
Rating: Not rated
Running Time: 153 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
Audio: English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 4.0 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 DTS
Subtitles: English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Spanish, French
Special Features: “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story” viewing mode, Music Machine viewing mode, “A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy” documentaries, West Side memories, Storyboard-to-film comparison montage, theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary: Song commentary by Stephen Sondheim

A New York City gang member (Richard Beymer) falls in love with a girl (Natalie Wood) from a rival Puerto Rican gang. When the two gangs battle each other, the pair find their secret love tested, especially when tragedy strikes. Winner of ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1961.
Directed by: Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

Let me preface this review by saying that I am not a big fan of musicals. For the most part, I never bought into the transition from speaking to singing, and usually find it silly. However, I do enjoy the occasional musical, like My Fair Lady, and I must admit I have to add West Side Story to the short list of musicals I would recommend to others.

I somehow had never managed to see West Side Story in its entirety until now. I never wanted to sit down and invest nearly three hours for a musical, no matter how good it is. The new 50th anniversary Blu-ray gave me the chance to finally try the movie out, and I must say, it is an impressive piece of entertainment. It perhaps is not fair to call it just a musical, because it manages to tie together song, dance, and socially-relevant drama into something you rarely see in cinema, even today.

There is a definite unique artisitic style presented here, from the inventive cinematography to the outstanding art direction. Even the final credits, designed by Saul Bass, are great to watch. Sure, the idea of gang members snapping their fingers and dancing across the streets of New York is a stretch, but the film does manage to capture the rebellious soul and spirit of street kids. You feel their isolation, they sing of the wish to find a place to call their own, and you hear their desire to belong to something.

The music, of course, is fantastic, and after several numbers, I was mightily impressed. Natalie Wood is perfect, even if she isn’t Puerto Rican, and Rita Moreno steals the show as Anita. Co-director Jerome Robbins (who headed the original Broadway play), gives the film the kinetic energy it needed by supervising the choreography, and the other co-director, Robert Wise, provided the technical hand to keep the film from straying. Together, they made a classic. Ironically, Robbins was removed as co-director during filming because his push for perfection caused delays and cost overruns, but Wise brought him back after the film’s release to ensure he received the credit – and an Academy Award. A documentary in the special features details the story.

The 50th anniversary Blu-ray release gives a new generation the chance to discover this film. Even after all this time, it continues to entertain and be socially relevant, as it addresses the struggles of Puerto Ricans to be accepted into society. It is a film that should be seen. It will stay with you long after the credits roll.

This 50th anniversary Blu-ray release is totally remastered and features an outstanding transfer, with incredible detail. I took a close look at the image, and there is some minor film grain and artifacting visible if you get really close, but you’ll likely never notice it from a regular viewing distance. This fifty-year-old movie looks as good, if not better, than movies half its age. It’s the Dick Clark of video transfers.

I do have one issue with the transfer, however. It seems in the attempt to keep the colors vibrant, the color correction may have been a bit too extreme, as most of the skin tones of the actors look unnaturally reddish, like they all slightly sunburned. It is pretty obvious in most scenes, but I suppose that is the concession they made to stay faithful to the original intent of the directors and set designer.

The Blu-ray features a new 7.1 DTS soundtrack, and it is fantastic. It features a full, enveloping sound that gives the songs an almost perfect presentation. There is very little distortion that can be heard here. It is an excellent addition to the disc. A 4.0 Dolby Digital mix is also included, as is a 5.1 DD Spanish mix and a French 5.1 DTS track, and you must give credit to MGM/Fox for going the extra mile to include as much as possible.

The Blu-ray features some fantastic extras, with perhaps the best being the “Pow!” featurettes. These are mini-featurettes that will play at specific times during the film. Each featurette focuses on a dance sequence that is about to be shown, and both dance critics and actors from the film discuss each scene. There is an incredible amount of information given about how the film was made, including behind-the-scenes footage and photos, as well as anecdotes that go far beyond the promotional fluff of standard featurettes. You will discover how much of a perfectionist Jerome Robbins was, and find out how much the dancers suffered to get it right.

Lyricist Stephen Sondheim provides commentary for each of his songs, and it is quite fascinating to hear a legend discuss his work in such detail. A “music machine” option rounds out the extras on the first disc and allows you to watch only the songs from the film.

A documentary on the second disc is very candid, and you will learn just how hectic the shoot was. Nearly every major actor (save for Natalie Wood) participates, as well as many of the secondary cast. The “memories” featurette, featuring cast recollections, is also quite good, and the storyboard comparison, which I usually find boring, is actually quite well done and expertly edited to show just how closely the final film mirrored the original concept. A series of trailers from various years rounds out the second disc.

The extras overall are among the best I’ve seen for a film, and fans will be quite satisfied.

OVERALL GRADE: A+ (an average of all four grades)
There is really not much more to say other than West Side Story on Blu-ray is an absolute must own. One of the finest pieces of entertainment Hollywood has ever produced gets a first-class Blu-ray release. Buy it.

West Side Story: The 50th Anniversary Blu-ray is available in a Limited Edition 4-Disc Boxed Set featuring a 2-disc Blu-ray, newly-restored DVD, Tribute CD and collectible memorabilia, as well as a 3-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray and DVD set.

Click here to order West Side Story on Blu-ray from Amazon!