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MGM Studios DVD presents
West Side Story (1961)

When you're a Jet, you're the top cat in town
You're the gold-medal kid with the heavyweight crown!
When you're a Jet you're the swingin'est thing
Little boy, you're a man, little man, you're a king!

- Riff (Russ Tamblyn) from The Jet Song

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: April 06, 2003

Stars: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn
Director: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins

Manufacturer: Laser Pacific Media Corporation
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:33m:00s
Release Date: April 01, 2003
UPC: 027616884343
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ AA-A B+

DVD Review

One of the best recent experiences I've had in a movie theater was going to see Chicago—a packed New York crowd seemed so hungry for a movie musical with a pedigree, and applause burst out at the end of nearly every musical number. The movie musical has gone in funny directions in recent years, some more successful than others: from Everyone Says I Love You to Bulworth to the South Park movie, there have been a variety of attempts to recapture the spirited and inventive Hollywood musicals of a bygone era.

No film may better exemplify that ethos of inventiveness and creativity than West Side Story, one of the most exuberant musicals ever filmed. It's hard to imagine just how groundbreaking it must have seemed on Broadway in 1957—characters didn't stop talking and turn to the balcony, then break out into conventional sixteen-bar show tunes, but the music and dancing were woven into the fabric of the piece. And there's an obvious attempt to tap into the alienation of America's Eisenhower-era youth—this may well be the last great movie musical before the age of rock and roll, and the last Broadway show that produced chart-topping songs that became standards.

West Side Story is a re-imagining of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in Manhattan—instead of the warring Capulets and Montagues of Verona, we see two rival gangs, the Jets, made up of native English speakers, and the Sharks, newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants. Turf is everything, and the Jets don't much cotton to the Sharks horning in on their territory; with their tempers and fragile egos, that means that only violence can follow. Biff (Russ Tamblyn) leads the Jets, and even though his co-founder of the gang, Tony (Richard Beymer) doesn't spend all day with the guys, he's still one of them—because when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way. (Just ask Chad Pennington.)

The suave Bernardo (George Chakiris) leads the Sharks, and his little sister, Maria (Natalie Wood), is Juliet to Tony's Romeo—these star-crossed lovers meet at a dance, and are both instantly smitten. Maria confesses her forbidden passion to Anita (Rita Moreno), her best friend and Bernardo's girlfriend—Anita knows that no good can come from this, and she's right.

One of the many things that West Side Story does so well is re-imagining New York street life just enough to make it both plausible and aesthetically palpable. The Jets and Sharks are a far cry from the Crips and the Bloods—about the roughest word they use is "crud," and their weapons of choice are knives and zip guns. (Dangerous, sure, but not Saturday night specials or semi-automatics.) It's a fine balance—the film wants us to believe that these are street toughs, but ones that are lithe enough to perform Jerome Robbins' intricate, athletic choreography and sing Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's demanding score. It's a problem inherent in any production of West Side Story—any Tony who can hit the high notes in Something's Coming is unlikely to have the street cred to start a gang.

Wood was the biggest movie star at the time, and in many ways she's in the roughest part, the ingénue who turns worldly wise in the course of the story. She's extraordinarily beautiful, but a couple of things work against her. First, as with almost all of the other actors, her singing was dubbed, and the lip synching is adequate, but that's all. More problematic: she's the only non-Hispanic actor cast as a Puerto Rican, and if this isn't quite as bad as working in blackface, it still may make you a little uncomfortable, especially with Wood's attempt at a Latina accent. (Her final speech is particularly egregious on this count.)

The scene-stealing role is Anita, and Moreno is terrific in it, at turns brazenly sexy and terribly vulnerable, and a great, charismatic dancer. Her steps in America alone would make her work here the stuff of legend. She won an Oscar for her performance, as did, improbably Chakiris—he's a fine Bernardo, but it's hard to believe that, in retrospect, he beat out both Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott for their work in The Hustler. But this is one of those shows in which the stars aren't the performers, but the piece itself—Robbins reconfigured his innovative choreography from the stage for the film, and it's vital and propulsive, and Bernstein's score is among the very best ever written for the American theater. It's loaded with songs that have since become so familiar, and it's a pleasure to re-hear them in their original contexts; Maria and Something's Coming and Somewhere aren't just elevator music, but great swatches of theater. And in terms of musical storytelling, it's safe to argue that the Tonight quintet is one of the very apexes in film history.

The stage pedigree is very much present throughout—the film is presented with an overture, and originally played in theaters with an intermission. (The intermission is an optional feature on the DVD.) The establishing helicopter shots of Manhattan are notable not just for the cinematic innovativeness, but because they show a pre-Twin Towers lower Manhattan; and special kudos goes to the production design team, headed by Boris Leven. His visual style is in perfect sync with the piece, part gritty realism, part musical-theater fantasia. It's not the costumes or the scenery that you'll be singing, but they make a fine contribution to this landmark movie musical.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Some specks and discolorations are evident on the print, which is just about the only thing distracting from this handsome and deeply saturated transfer. The colors in Boris Leven's eye-popping production design are garishly beautiful, and haven't lost their luster with the years. Robbins and Wise make good use of the widescreen format, and the only disadvantage of that for DVD is that if your monitor isn't especially large, the faces of the actors can seem too distant and inscrutable.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The audio provides Leonard Bernstein's time in the sun, for the music sounds impeccable and without interference. The silences are clean, too, and good use is made of all the speakers in the 5.1 track. The foreign-language tracks are worth a listen, too; the plot must get muddled if you listen to the movie in Spanish, though, for then the linguistic differences between the Jets and Sharks are pretty much erased.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish, English with remote access
4 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Fiddler on the Roof, Some Like It Hot, The Last Waltz
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet, with the film's screenplay
  2. photo galleries
  3. original film intermission music
Extras Review: A second disc offers some pretty impressive extras, the best of which is West Side Memories (55m:47s), a rather candid look at the making of the film. It features interviews with lyricist Stephen Sondheim; Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original stage production; many cast members, including Rita Moreno and Richard Beymer; director Robert Wise; and Jerome Robbins biographer Greg Lawrence. (Robbins, who died in 1998, is heard in some archival radio interviews.) There's discussion about the manner in which the musical was changed from stage to screen, and the unusual and uneasy co-directing arrangement, between Robbins and Wise. Robbins was a stern taskmaster, so much so that, a little more than halfway through the shoot, he was blamed for the delays and cost overruns, and was banned from the set. This is also the first place I've ever heard Natalie Wood's original dub tracks for her songs (a few bars of I Feel Pretty); she's not as bad as rumored, but as with just about all of the principals, her voice was replaced on the musical numbers after the shoot.

Given the participation and candor of so many of the surviving principals, and that a couple of them (Wise, screenwriter Ernest Lehman) have provided excellent commentary tracks on other discs, it's something of a disappointment that there isn't one here. Similarly, if any DVD cries out for a music-only track, this is it, but no luck.

The photo galleries are loaded with treats, too, with chapters on production design and storyboards (including proposed drawings for a ballet sequence in Somewhere, never shot), and many photographs from the set. We see the cattle call of the original auditions, location snapshots, lots of Natalie Wood, many costume sketches, and even two Hirschfeld cartoons. The gallery is well complemented by a storyboard-to-film comparison montage (4m:46s).

My favorite of the four trailers is an animated one, featuring Bernstein's music; two re-release trailers promise that this is the Dorian Gray of musicals, that "unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger." Trailers for three other movies are for their recent DVD incarnations, along with a general trailer featuring highlights from MGM's home video offerings.

A hefty, well-made booklet accompanies this two-disc set—it includes an introductory essay by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, along with a reproduction of Lehman's script, generously illustrated. Also in the booklet is a reproduction of the lobby brochure that was passed out at the film's premiere, with a cast list, biographies for the key members of the creative team, and lyrics to some of the songs; some clippings of original reviews of the film (in which the word "masterpiece" predominates); and a couple of memos from the production, including one from Wise to theaters exhibiting the movie, on just how to dim the lights when the overture starts.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

It's not gangbanging realism, and it's not frothy musical comedy, either—part of the triumph of West Side Story is its ability to conjure up its own genre, part ballet, part book musical, part tragedy. The film looks beautiful on this special edition DVD, and while it may be carping a bit to wonder about extras that might have been included, the film continues to justify its lauded reputation, and will make a fine edition to any DVD collection.


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