West Side Story

West Side Story
Director: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman (based on the stageplay conceived by Jerome Robbins, produced by Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Stars: Natalie Wood (Maria), Richard Beymer (Tony), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Simon Oakland (Schrank), Ned Glass (Doc), William Bramley (Krupke),Tucker Smith (Ice), Tony Mordente (Action), David Winters (A-rab), Eliot Feld (Baby John), Bert Michaels (Snowboy), David Bean (Tiger), Robert Banas (Joyboy)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: U.S.
West Side Story Blu-Ray
West Side StoryWest Side Story, a modern reworking of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, has one of the great opening sequences of any American movie musical: a daring, unconventional evocation of the story’s primary themes of restless youth and ethnic tensions enflamed by the constrictions of the modern urban environment that fully merges the cinematic via co-director Robert Wise’s vibrant camerawork and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins’s expressive dance moves. Although it is now a cliché made misleadingly banal by decades of repetition, Wise’s decision to introduce the film’s setting via a series of extreme high shots directly over the island of Manhattan was a radical one at the time, immediately defamiliarizing the iconic cityscape while also drawing our attention to its geometrical layout, with streets running like arteries between massive buildings whose variations in height are frequently flattened by the extreme high angle. Scored only to the distant sounds of the city and a forlorn, echoing whistle, the camera moves steadily across the city before moving in toward a group of boys on a paved playground in the middle of a dilapidated tenement neighborhood in the West 60s (now home to Lincoln Center).With a quick zoom and then a cut, Wise brings us down to street level, taking us from the realm of the God’s eye view to being right in the middle of the action. At this point, Robbins’s choreography takes over, itself an audacious conceit that uses classical ballet moves to convey the simmering and sometimes explosive tensions between two youth gangs who are vying for the same turf. In a wonderful, provocative, frequently amazing series of constantly moving shots, we are told entirely through dance about the rivalry between the Jets, a white, working-class gang, and the Sharks, who are composed entirely of Puerto Rican immigrants.

The idea of taking the basic plot structure of Romeo & Juliet and reworking it within the modern milieu of urban gang warfare was, at the time, a remarkable and controversial idea because musicals were associated primarily with humor and satire and lighthearted romance. Although so-called “problem pictures” (movies that dealt dramatically with topical social issues like racism and social inequality) had been popular and influential since the late 1940s, musicals rarely dove into such territory and certainly not with the vigor displayed in West Side Story. And, more to the point, the issue of juvenile delinquency and youth gangs had, with rare exceptions such as Rebel Without a Cause (1954), been largely the province of independent productions and B-movies.

The greatest achievement of West Side Story, which was originally created by Robbins, producers Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince, writer Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and composed Leonard Bernstein, is the manner in which it melds so many discordant elements. Although audiences were not used to seeing contemporary social problems enacted in song and dance (it is not surprising that the Tony Award for Best Musical did not go to West Side Story, but rather to The Music Man), they were moved by not just the doomed love story, but by the larger canvas of ethnic tensions that turn the romance into tragedy. The idea of young lovers being torn apart by forces outside their control had new relevance; it gave the abstract concept of racial strife a recognizable face.

The doomed lovers are Tony (Richard Beymer), a former member of the Jets who is trying to go legit, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the sweet, naïve younger sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris), the Sharks’ fiery leader. As in Romeo & Juliet, Tony and Maria first spy each other across a crowed room, in this case a local gymnasium being used for a community dance. It is the fabled love at first sight, and soon they are singing to each other on a fire escape, the film’s urban variation of Juliet’s balcony. And, just like the feuding families in Shakespeare’s story, the Jets and the Sharks escalate their rivalry just as Tony and Maria are committing the ultimate sin of finding a middle ground between the two sides. “You’re one of them” and “You’re not one of us” are repeated refrains throughout the film, spoken on both sides with equal intensity, constantly reminding us of the importance of group identity and the risk one takes in breaking away from such social structures. It is not surprising that when Tony and Maria are together, the scenes stand out aesthetically because it is rare to have only two people on screen--a pair rather than a gang. (Interestingly, when Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita, played by Rita Moreno, have an intimate moment together, Wise frames them in the foreground as silhouettes while the background is filled with the rest of the Sharks and their girlfriends; even when alone, they’re still primarily a part of the gang.)

The opening shots of Manhattan high above and the wordless ballet that follows were shot on location in the city, but the vast majority of the film was shot on soundstages that bear a striking level of verisimilitude, yet still feel decidedly theatrical. The opening location photography certainly bleeds over and inflects the rest of the film, but the filmmakers were clearly aiming for a stylized look that balances the gritty realities of a world constructed entirely of brick, asphalt, and chain-link fences (I don’t think there is a single plant anywhere in the film, not so much as a blade of grass) with the inherent fantasy of characters expressing themselves through song and dance. The mediator between these two potentially discordant elements is the lighting, which is distinctly stylized with bright, heavily saturated primary colors that make even the most realistic of locations appear hyperreal. Thus, Maria’s bedroom is bathed in intense blues, greens, and reds from a pair of stained glass doors, while the underside of a highway overpass under which a brawl takes place is painted in a hellish red that intensifies the threat of violence. The characters themselves are also color coded, with the Sharks dressed in loud reds and purples while the Jets favor earth tones and yellows. This vivacious use of light and color has been compared with Indian Bollywood musicals, which also lean toward the garishly overly saturated, although it reminded me primarily of the Italian gialli (murder mysteries with horror overtones) by Mario Bava and Dario Argento.

Interestingly, the best moments in West Side Story do not focus primarily on the romance between Tony and Maria. Whenever romance takes center stage, the film tends to slow down its tempo and intensity; Tony and Maria’s songs are lyrical ballads and the dancing disappears almost entirely as the young lovers are virtually immobilized by their desire (it also doesn’t help that neither Beymer nor Wood did their own singing). The surrounding scenes are the ones that pop because they form the chaotic, tense backdrop against which the romance is set. Thus, we get songs like “America,” a lively, humorous, but extremely telling rooftop showdown between the Sharks and their girlfriends with the latter group, led by Anita, extolling the virtues of their adopted country while the gang members sarcastically point out all of its shortcomings and prejudices (“Life is alright in America,” “If you’re a white in America”). Since virtually everyone has read or is at least familiar with Romeo & Juliet, we know that things will not end well, but the specter of romantic tragedy is heart-rending only insofar as it reflects the larger social issues at stake. The inability of Tony and Maria to realize their dream of being together is a microcosm of America’s own struggle to live up to her identity as the great melting pot, and it is the heat of West Side Story’s social and cultural conflicts that make it a pop-culture landmark unlike any other.

West Side Story 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray + DVD

Aspect Ratio2.20:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 4.0 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 monaural
  • French DTS 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
    Supplements
  • “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story” in-movie viewing mode
  • A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy retrospective documentary
  • West Side Memories retrospective documentary
  • Song-specific commentary by lyricist Stephen Sondheim
  • “Music Machine”
  • Storyboard-to-film comparison montage
  • Theatrical trailers
  • DistributorMGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    SRP$29.99
    Release DateNovember 15, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    After a fairly lengthy delay (I think the original street date was some six months ago), West Side Story has finally made its high-definition debut in time for its 50th anniversary, but not without some controversy. As film historian and restorationist Robert Harris noted back in October, there is an error in the mastering that results in what should be a dissolve from Saul Bass’s abstract opening image to the title card turning into a fade out and fade in. This is, of course, the kind of problem that only a fan of the film who is deeply familiar with it will notice, but let’s face it: It is exactly these fans who are going to be the first to buy copies of the new Blu-Ray when it streets. Fox has already promised to fix the problem and replace the discs for anyone who wants to send theirs in. With that caveat aside, the majority of the transfer is quite stunning, rendering the film’s bright, complex images (presented in their proper 2.20:1 70mm aspect ratio) with great clarity and detail (you can actually see the fine corduroy in Tony’s jacket, as well as all the crags and cracks in the brick and concrete all around him). Contrast is excellent, with great blacks and shadows detail. Most improved are the colors, which have all the depth and saturation of a new Technicolor print; the reds and yellows and greens and blues have, for the most part, never looked so intense and vibrant outside of an original 70mm dye-transfer print. There are some problems here and there, especially some of the opticals, which seem decidedly more faded and problematic, but overall this is by far the best the film has looked on home video. The soundtrack has also been a point of contention. The lossless 7.1-channel DTS Master Audio track included here is a remix of the same four-channel 35mm soundtrack that appeared on previous DVDs even though the original six-track 70mm master has been recently discovered. Apparently it was cost-prohibitive to remaster those sound elements, so we get essentially the same soundtrack except expanded to seven channels. It sounds great, with excellent immersion and clarity, but I imagine that long-time fans of the film who would savor hearing the original six-track mix will still harbor some disappointment.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplements, almost all of which are housed on a second Blu-Ray disc to leave as much room as possible for the 153-minute film on the first disc, are a mix of the old and the new. On the first disc we have the option of watching the film in a viewing mode known as “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story,” which stops the film during the dance sequences and cuts to short featurettes in which filmmakers, dancers, and choreographers offer their analysis. Also on that disc is brief song-specific audio commentary by lyricist Stephen Sondheim (about 20 minutes total). On the second disc we have A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy, a new half-hour retrospective documentary; the same 55-minute documentary West Side Memories that originally appeared on the 2003 DVD; a storyboard-to-film comparison montage; and four theatrical trailers.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)



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