West Side Story appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.20:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not completely flawless, the film looked quite positive, especially when one considered its age.
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. Jagged edges created no concerns, but some mild shimmering occurred at times, and I also witnessed a little light edge enhancement. As for print flaws, the image demonstrated occasional examples of speckles and grits with a few small marks as well. However, these seemed pretty modest for a flick that came out more than 40 years ago.
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. Ultimately, West Side Story displayed a fairly impressive visual experience that just fell short of “A” level.
How did this new version compare to the original DVD? The two seemed pretty similar, though they demonstrated a few minor differences. The old disc appeared a little less tight and concise at times in regard to sharpness and colors, but it also came across as a bit cleaner. Overall, the mix of strengths and weaknesses balanced out in the end; though slightly different, neither seemed distinctly superior to the other.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of West Side Story also worked well for its age. Though the DVD’s case touted this as a “new” 5.1 mix, it sounded virtually the same as the 5.1 track found on the original DVD. That seemed fine to me, as the old disc offered a nice sonic experience.
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.
While the new “DVD Collector’s Set” of West Side Story presents visuals and audio that seem quite similar of those from the original disc, the re-issue clearly tops the old one in the department of extras. The first version came with nothing more than a trailer for a re-release of the film. The Collector’s Set doesn’t overwhelm with supplements, but it provides a few good pieces.
All of the package’s disc-based extras show up on DVD Two. The main attraction is a new documentary called West Side Memories. This 55-minute and 48-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 new chats with playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, 1957 Broadway production co-producer Hal Prince, Dance With Demons author Greg Lawrence, executive producer Walter Mirisch, producer/co-director Robert Wise, assistant director Robert Relyea and actors Richard Beymer, Tony Mordente, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, and Harvey Hohnecker. (Actor George Chakiris remains oddly absent, though I’ve seen recent 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 47 seconds and eschews the standard split-screen format. Instead, it shows the storyboard and then runs the film clip. That seems like an odd choice, and it appears only moderately successful. Given that the boards and the film both are mostly displayed at 2.20:1, it wouldn’t have been tough to make them fit the 1.33:1 screen without much compromise. In any case, fans should enjoy this brief glimpse at some West Side material.
Inside the “Film Archives” we find three different pieces. 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.
The original film intermission lasts 90 seconds and shows an “Intermission” screen card with the accompaniment of an instrument take on “I Feel Pretty”. This also can appear during the main movie on DVD One if you select it as an option when you start the movie; in its natural place, it shows up around the 80-minute mark.
Except for some ads in the “Other Great MGM Releases” area, DVD Two ends with a collection of three Photo Galleries. The “Production Design Gallery” shows 10 conceptual designs and sketches by production designer Boris Leven. In the “Storyboard” area we get 83 examples of this art by storyboard artist Maurice Zuberano. Lastly, the “Behind the Scenes” section splits into an additional 10 subdomains. These include between three and 40 images each for a total of 127 frames in all. Most of these show photos, but some costume designs and a couple of Hirschfeld caricatures appear as well.
While that ends the disc-bound extras, the elaborate package also includes a thick collectible scrapbook. This text presents an informative three-page note from screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a timeline for West Side Story, various production notes, and Lehman’s entire screenplay. Though the script fills most of the scrapbook, it also provides the film’s original lobby brochure and a collection of memos and reviews plus a mix of photos. It’s a nice piece that should interest any West Side fan.
After two screenings, I can’t put myself in that group. I find West Side Story 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 DVD offers very good picture and sound with a fairly nice set of extras.
While this “Collector’s Set” definitely presents the best version of West Side Story on the market, I find it hard to recommend it firmly to fans because of its price. This release lists for almost $40, which makes it much more expensive than the old bare-bones edition. Unfortunately, the latter seems to be out of print; a look at a number of Internet retailers revealed nary a copy to be found.
Given that MGM touts the “Collector’s Set” as a limited edition, does that mean a less elaborate version of the package will appear at some point? Perhaps, but as I write this, it looks like this is the only game in town. Clearly it’s a nice package, but the price remains somewhat steep.
For those who already own the old DVD, I’d recommend they stick with it unless they just can’t get enough of West Side Story. The new package presents picture and sound that seem similar to the old version, and the extras don’t seem strong enough to warrant the purchase of such an expensive release. As for those who don’t possess the prior DVD, the “Collector’s Set” offers more appeal, but it still seems too pricey for what you get. Drop the cost by ten bucks and I give it a stronger recommendation.