DVD Movie Guide @ dvdmg.com
Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main

A triumph on every level, this magnificent achievement set a standard for modern movie musicals that remains unsurpassed to this day. Featuring an unforgettable score and groundbreaking choreography, the film sets the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of gang warfare in 1950s New York.

Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley
Writing Credits:
Ernest Lehman

The Screen Achieves One of the Great Entertainments in the History of Motion Pictures
Not Rated.

Academy Awards:
Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor-George Chakiris; Best Supporting Actress-Rita Moreno; Best Cinematographer; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Music.
Nominated for Best Screenplay.

Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
English DTS-HD MA 7.1
English Dolby Digital 4.0
French DTS 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
German DTS 5.1
Chinese Simplified
Supplements Subtitles:
Chinese Simplified

Runtime: 152 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 11/15/2011

Disc One:
• Song-Specific Commentary by Lyricist Stephen Sondheim
• “Music Machine” Song Search
• “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story” Featurettes
Disc Two:
• “West Side Memories” Retrospective Documentary
• Storyboard-to-Film Comparison
• Original Release Trailers
• “A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy” Featurette
Disc Three:
• DVD Copy


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


[an error occurred while processing this directive]

West Side Story [Blu-Ray] (1961)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 15, 2011)

Since I occasionally mention my general dislike for musicals, I get some e-mails that ask why I bother to review them. It comes with the territory; I can’t just ignore all of the successful musicals from over the years. Given that quite a few won Oscars as Best Picture, it became inevitable that I’d need to watch quite a few of them.

As such, I didn't look forward to West Side Story, and its first few minutes – which feature lots of flouncing and posing from some pretty-boys who are supposed to be members of rival New York gangs - didn't seem too promising.

Not surprisingly, I must admit that I didn't much like the movie. The style was not my cup of tea, and I didn't enjoy the songs. However, I did respect it as a well-crafted piece of work that seems to offer a strong example of the musical genre. Objectively, I found Story to provide a fairly compelling variation on Romeo and Juliet.

It updates the action to New York City of the early Sixties and creates a situation in which it's not the Montagues and the Capulets who block the romantic affair of our two leads. It gives us differing races and backgrounds as acted out through two gangs, the white bread Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Honestly, it never seems especially clear why these two groups hate each other so much, but do racial motivations ever make much sense?

In any case, against that backdrop we find Tony (Richard Beymer), one of the leaders of the Jets, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of head Shark Bernardo (George Chakiris). They’re two young cuties who meet and quickly – and I mean really quickly - fall in love. Not surprisingly, this interaction doesn't sit well with the others, and the dissension intensifies as the film progresses.

Since Romeo has been ripped off innumerable times over the centuries, we can't look to the story as anything unique; it's a different take on the old saw, but it sticks pretty closely to Shakespeare's basic tale. The film develops its individual qualities from the musical aspects of the project, and it's clear those are quite special. Although I do often dislike musicals, I respect the work in Story because the songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim seem clever and memorable. Sondheim's wordplay appears bright and vivid, and Bernstein imbues the whole thing with some strong melodies.

Adding to the thrill is the choreography by co-director Jerome Robbins. The dancing occurs frequently and it displays a creativity and an exuberance that make it stand out as something special. Robbins also features a visual pattern that makes the movie distinctive; there's a starkness and abstract quality to the look of the picture that come across as something unusual.

All of the preceding statements come from Objective Colin, the one who can see why so many people like Story. Subjective Colin, on the other hand, finds too much about the project that seems dopey for him to enjoy it.

First of all there's the sheer goofiness of all these singing and dancing pretty boys. It's awfully hard to take these tough guys seriously when they're flouncing about and crooning cute little tunes. Granted, gangs from 50 years ago might not seem all that scary in today's environment anyway, but the added hindrance of the musical environment lessens their threat even further. The danger that's supposed to exist in these characters is too important a facet of the plot to have it turn silly, but unfortunately that's what happens; a guy can only look so scary when he's chirping about how great it is to be a Jet.

I’m also not wild about many of the performances. Actually, I think most of the performances are too broad and lack substance. That's part of the problem with musicals, especially those that have been adapted from the stage; in front of a live audience, performers have to be loud and emotive to make sure the crowd can get the material. Unfortunately, many times these tendencies aren't modulated for the big screen and the actors come across as overly broad.

However, some of the worst performances in Story come from folks who I don't believe ever did the show on the stage. Both Beymer and Wood simply seem bland and unconvincing. They're an attractive couple - Wood really was a gorgeous woman - but their acting appears flawed. Wood especially runs into trouble since she plays outside her race; she makes one of the least convincing Latina women ever. It doesn't help that others doubled the singing for both Wood and Beymer, as this lends a somewhat artificial tone to their work.

Still, fans of the genre will find much to like about West Side Story. I'm not part of that group, but the piece offered enough pleasures for me to find it tolerable at least. I don't think I'd pick it for Best Picture but it's a well-constructed film that holds up well after five decades.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B / Audio B+ / Bonus B+

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.