West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition (US - BD RA)
Gabe thinks this Blu-ray is pretty. Oh so pretty. Well, except for this one thing...
I often assume that people that claim to love movies but not musicals, really mean to say they like reading books while looking at pictures, but are against embracing true audio/visual entertainment. I react with similar suspicion when people that claim to love movies say they don’t like horror films. I know that this is an overreaction, and that there really are just some film fans that don’t like musicals or horror films, but it doesn’t make statement any less frustrating to my personal sensibilities. I went through an anti-musical period myself when I was in my teens, so I understand the reaction, but I’ve since realized an anti-musical stance makes about as much sense as an anti-fun stance. The real beauty of motion pictures as art is found in a mix of several different art forms. There’s art in the photography, the production design, the costume design, the performances, the storytelling, the editing, and the blocking. There’s even art in the mixing of arts. The best horror films tend to celebrate every aspect of filmmaking with relish, but when done right, musicals are the ultimate expressions of film art. In the defense of the ‘musicals are lame’ school of though, it is difficult to list more than a couple of dozen musicals that I would consider genuinely great films, and sometime around the 1980s film musicals took a huge dive in quality and quantity. During the ‘90s there was enough musical backlash that even Disney stopped making them, which led to perhaps the worst extended period of the studio’s animated output ( Tarzan and Emperor’s New Groove notwithstanding). The genre saw a bit of an uptake between 1999 and 2002, when South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Moulin Rouge and Chicago met with audience and critical acclaim, but we’re still a long way away from any kind of resurgence of the ‘50s and ‘60s era output, and the ‘success’ of Mama Mia should not ever be compared to the success of Mary Poppins or Singing in the Rain.
West Side Story might be the apex achievement in the format (though Singing in the Rain is such a close runner-up I’m not sure I can choose between the two), and a prime example of how eye-rollingly silly such an exercise can sound on paper. A pedantic look at the basics of the plot reveals a vastly overused theme, Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, gussied and moderned up with heavy-handed social issues. Few things could ever have sounded as trite to first time, critically thinking audiences, but the simplicity of Ernest Lehman’s script (based on Arthur Laurents’ original story, and, of course, Shakespeare’s play) beautifully contrast with the complexity of the music, dance and cinematography, and at the time the modernism was actually quite unique. Modern Shakespearian retellings largely came out of West Side Story, for better and for worse. The silliness is addressed through some degree of camp, especially towards the beginning of the film (‘America’, ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, and ‘I Feel Pretty’ are all designed to be funny), but once the viewer is acclimated to the tone it’s easy to abide, and easier still to be heartbroken as the film turns the screws towards darker and distressing situations. A musical runs on different rules than a standard drama, or even a melodrama. Emotions are worn on sleeves, and characters sing and dance to exert their feelings. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s musical numbers aren’t arbitrary either. They do tend to put the narrative into slow motion (which accounts for the films 152 minute length), but never stop the story, or even fall out of place with the narrative flow.
This new Blu-ray has plenty of extra features that can explain the legacy and virtue of the film better than I can, but they can’t explain the rush of emotion that coincides with watching the film. I get terrible chills and goose bumps every time I watch this film, specifically during the mambo sequence, the onset of ‘America’ (god I wish more of my conversations went this way), and Natalie Wood’s heart-rending final speech. I have to halt the urge to applaud when the musical numbers end, and the ‘Tonight’ medley almost drives me to tears. Almost. Shut up. The disc’s extras don’t impress the importance of co-director/producer Robert Wise’s impact on film history either. Co-director/choreographer Jerome Robbins is my most accounts responsible for the dancing and dancers, which cannot be overlooked in assessing the film’s perfection (apparently he was eventually removed from the production for being so tough on the actors), but Wise’s widescreen, large-format, hyper-colourful images set the film leagues beyond the expectations of a stage-based production. West Side Story’s stage roots are never forgotten, but Wise approaches the stage in the same way David Lean approaches Arabia. Even the location shots are handsomely dressed, colourfully lit, and often shot from a low, stage audience angle (save that brilliant god’s eye view that opens the film). In terms of simple graphic structure there are few popular films that match, and even fewer that took such illustrative chances at the time. Wise’s career as a filmmaker was astonishingly eclectic, and included the chilling Body Snatcher (for producer Val Lewton), the best of the ‘50s era allegorical sci-fi films, The Day the Earth Stood Still, suspenseful classics like Run Silent, Run Deep and the Andromeda Strain, and another of the most celebrated ‘60s musicals of all time, The Sound of Music (for which he won his second best picture and best director Oscars).
My set is 47 inches, and based on the size of my viewing room this is plenty adequate for my viewing purposes. This is one of those unfortunate occasions where 47 were not enough inches. Few things short of IMAX can contain the graphic extremes of West Side Story. Presented in its original 2.20:1 aspect ration, this 1080p transfer is mostly the standout fans were hoping for. For most intents and purposes West Side Story is an animated film due to its three strip Technicolor process, and co-direct Robert Wise and cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp’s use of super-saturated lighting, costumes and production design. The colour is the major, pervasive reason to upgrade from older DVD release. The special edition DVD didn’t have problems with detail levels, but the hyper-vibrant palette was never this bright, thick, or sharply separated. There’s no mud in these hues, and no problem with compression artifacts or blocking effects. And everything in West Side Story is colour coated like a Disney film, not the least of which being the two sides of the narrative conflict. The Jets are often clad in yellows, oranges and blues, and the Sharks in reds and purples, creating battles and dances worthy of Henri Matisse. The Technicolor process has some weird side effects, specifically in the way it makes basic hues entirely and unrealistically uniform (skin tones), but this is really the beauty of the format. The people behind this transfer appear to have avoided the temptation to overuse DNR, though this may be less a case of technicians behaving, and more the fact that 70mm Technicolor prints don’t have a lot of grain on them if they’re well maintained.
Detail levels are striking throughout, though texture isn’t the most important thing to this particular film. Fapp and Wise mess with depth subtly throughout the film, often leaving the sets and backgrounds just out of focus. When they are in focus this transfer handles them better than the SD release, and there’s nothing notably wrong with medium and close-up textures. There are some minor issues here and there, outside of the major issue I discuss below. The big god’s eye helicopter shot is a bit shaky, and feature some minor moiré effects. This effect continues during part of the following footage of the Jets menacing various West Siders, but largely cleans itself up once we cut back away from the early traveling shots (the shots just before the intermission fade notwithstanding). The pervasive problem is minor blowouts and sharpening effects, like edge haloes, over some shots. This isn’t particularly consistent. The majority of the image is crisp without problems, but the white levels on odd shots (and often the issue will strike until there is a cut) can look ragged. Other shots have the opposite problem, and blend the colours a little too softly together. Black levels are continuously sharp and thick without many rough cuts or crush. I’m especially impressed with the thick, noir-ish shadows during the rumble.
On the other hand, as many of you have probably already heard through the grapevine (this review took me a lot longer to write than it should have), there is one unmistakably error at the beginning of this transfer (I’m sure die-hard fans will catch more in the audio design or colour timing) that needs to be addressed. During the opening overture Saul Bass’ iconic title design – a series of lines that is revealed to be a helicopter shot of the Manhattan skyline – colours subtly blend through a rainbow spectrum for about four minutes and 50 seconds. In the original film the final change is orange to green to blue (or something close to that). On this disc the orange appears redder, which I could be convinced was the way the film looked upon its original release. The more obvious problem is that instead of hitting the green hue, this transfer fades to black, then fades back in to blue as the lines turn white and the title appears. I’ve read that Fox/MGM will be correcting this issue, so it might be worth holding off on this release.
Here are some helpful videos folks have upped to YouTube that illustrate what I’m talking about:
Blu-ray red to black to blue fade
Original release fade
Go ahead and try to tell me you don’t know the melody and at least one third of the words to ‘I Feel Pretty’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘America’. Stop lying and admit you’re humming them right now. This uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix sounds practically perfect to these ears. Being a musical, Leonard Bernstein’s incredible music is clearly the major reason to celebrate something so clean, warm, and natural. ‘Dance at the Gym’, or the mambo song is the place that really kicks the surround and stereo channels into overdrive, and makes the best use of the uncompressed bit rate. The brassy horns aren’t slathered into a mess of noise, spread nicely over the channels with a strong echo in the rears, and nothing noticeably distorts even at the highest volume levels. The most obvious directional enhancement comes soon after during ‘Maria’, where cries of ‘Maria’ flutter throughout the channels. Outside of this there isn’t a lot of directional movement or discretely pointed rear channel sound (there’s a car that moves through the rears during a lull in the fight), but this is perfectly in keeping with the film’s original four-track mix. I have a few slight issues with the placement of vocal effects, which don’t really stay entirely centered even when characters are. This makes sense for the singing scenes, which spread the singing beautifully over the various channels, but is a little awkward during discussion. Some non-musical group dialogue also features a bit of occasional reverb.
Disc one extras begin with a song specific audio commentary from writer Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim discusses the genesis of songs, the usually huge changes they went through, the technical aspects of songwriting, and his personal history as a songwriter.
The tracks usually don’t run the entirety of a song (the total commentary runs about 19:40), but also covers Bernstein’s music only songs, and gives some insight to the composer’s and choreographer Jerome Robbins’ craft. Pow! The Dances of West Side Story (19:10, HD) is a collection of seven featurettes on the film’s choreography, and can be viewed both as an in-movie PiP, or separately, from the main menu. I chose the separate viewing mode, but didn’t watch it until after I’d seen all of the second disc extras, so those looking for a list of interviews look at the next paragraph (I should probably save a little page space). These are plenty informative (I certainly gained an even greater respect for the storytelling aspects of the dance), and never overstay their welcome. The first disc also features a ‘music machine’ selection mode that can take viewers directly to the musical moments.
The second disc of this three disc set (the third disc being a DVD copy of the film) starts with A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy, a two part retrospective featurette. The first part, Creation and Innovation (15:10, HD), features a bevy of celebrity and participant memories, and runs through the musical’s creation, and, well, innovation. I suppose the title speaks for itself. Subject matter covers the film’s modernism, the politics and prejudice of the era, musical fusion, the original Catholic Vs. Jew angle, the controversy of the gangland element, and the film’s influence on pop culture. A Timeless Vision (14:20, HD) delves more into the visuals of the film, including the brash colour palette, lighting, Saul Bass’ credits, and clips from pop culture homage and spoofs. Both parts of the featurette include interviews with legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, director/choreographer Adam Shankman, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, director/choreographer Susan Stroman, composer/lyricist/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, actress/dancer/director Debbie Allen, choreographer Joey McKneely, choreographer Zach Woodly, conductor John Mauceri, orchestrator Sid Ramin, Jerome Robbins biographers Deborah Jowitt and Amanda Vaill, critic Sylvian Gold, writer Misha Berson, assistant director Robert Releya, West Bank Story director Ari Dandel, Glee co-producer/choreographer Zach Woodlee, West Bank Story composer Yuval Ron, and original film and stage actor/dancers Chita Riviera, Jaime Rogers, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Yvonne Wilder.
West Side Memories (55:50, SD) is a holdover from the special edition DVD release. It covers much of the same ground as the shorter two-part featurette, but does so in a more narrative driven fashion, and in greater depth. I’d actually recommend watching it first despite the lack of HD enhancement. It includes vintage interviews with co-director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Broadway producer Hal Prince, author Greg Lawrence, producer Walter Mirisch, producer/co-director Robert Wise, assistant director Robert Relyea, and actors/dancers Richard Beymore, Tony Mordente, Rita Moreno, Russ Tablyn, Harvey Hohnecker, along with a bit of 8mm behind the scenes footage, likely filmed for some kind of EPK, original, pre-redub song recordings, and coloured storyboards. The second disc also features a storyboard to film comparison reel (4:50, SD), and four trailers.
West Side Story is one of an ever-shrinking number of Technicolor films begging for an HD release, and this disc is so close to the kind of perfection the film begs that a single avoidable error stings like a salty wound. Still, assuming you can stomach a botched opening image, and a handful of off-looking shots, this Blu-ray set should be a must own. Again, I’ve heard rumours of a correction disc, but don’t have anything concrete to report, so those than can wait might want to hold out a bit for further news. And the first person to post ‘I don’t like musicals’ in the comment section gets their candy and cake privileges revoked for life.
* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 15th November 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 4.0 English, DTS 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Pow! the Dances of West Side Story, Song Specific Commentary, Music Machine, A Place For Us: West Side Story's Legacy, West Side Memories, Storyboard to Film Comparison, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Cast: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno
Genre: Comedy, Drama and Musical
Length: 153 minutes
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