Rumors about Tuesday’s Blu-ray release of “West Side Story” started swirling many weeks ago, with two points of contention: First, that the overture visual sequence, the Saul Bass credit sequence was muffed so badly that the studio is going to have to release a corrected version in the future, and second, that the 7.1 soundtrack may have been fashioned from previous DVD soundtracks rather than the newly discovered original 6.0 audio. I’ve contacted the folks at 20th Century Fox and asked them to respond to both questions, and will update this review if I hear back from them.
For now, know that the Blu-ray of “West Side Story,” one of the most honored musicals in film history, is being released under a tiny cloud. I cansay that for a title this big, which the press release says “boasts hundreds of hours of restoration” and a “new 7.1 digital audio,” “West Side Story” on Blu-ray didn’t blow me away the way I hoped it would. The opening sequence that occupies the screen during the overture is ragged, and I remembered the transition from that changing color-bar sequence to the aerial shot of New York City being much more dramatic than it is here. As the cameras panned the skyline, I noticed noise on the edges of many buildings, which had me wondering already about the visual quality that would follow. After that, though, things seemed to settle down, with colors pleasingly saturated and strong enough edge delineation, black levels, and detail to satisfy most fans. It might not be a wowrelease, but it’s solid enough.
As for the audio? I remember it being slightly out of synch on an earlier DVD, and there’s at least one moment when Natalie Wood is lip-synching (like her male counterpart, she didn’t do her own singing) when the words and mouth seem just slightly off.
I lead with this information, rather than waiting to discuss it in the video and audio sections of the review, because some of you might prefer to take and wait-and-see approach to this title, if you haven’t already ordered it.
And you should order it at some point, unless you generally think that musicals are like yippy yappy dogs at three in the morning. With a Leonard Bernstein score, Stephen Sondheim lyrics, dance sequences handled by Jerome Robbins, and direction from Robbins and Robert Wise (“The Sound of Music,” “Run Silent Run Deep”), it’s a unique adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that stunned audiences with its depiction of street-punks “rumbling” with ballet-dance moves. At the time, it was audacious and groundbreaking–enough to where it set a new record by winning 10 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role statues for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno.
Richard Beymer and Wood are perfectly paired as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria, who see each other at a dance attended by both the Jets (a gang now-straight Tony founded) and the Sharks (a Puerto Rican gang led by Maria’s brother). The plot stays pretty close to Shakespeare until the end, when things take an urban-American turn. Tony, who has left the Jets and now works at a grocery store, comes out of retirement to go with gang leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) to a war council with Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris) and his lieutenant. Later, at a dance, Tony sees Maria and the stage is set for a love-vs.-hate battle. Though the gang members prance and spin more like Metropolitan Ballet stars than street toughs, Wise and Robbins maintain a believable balance between song-and-dance and realism, in part because “West Side Story” isn’t afraid to address themes of racism and delinquency while questioning America as the land of unbridled opportunity.
But music is the backbone of musicals, so let’s talk about the phenomenal Bernstein and Sondheim soundtrack. The gems are the ballads–“Maria,” “Somewhere,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Tonight”–but “I Feel Pretty,” “Something’s Coming” and “America” aren’t far behind. Even the comic songs and those intended to provide character and plot–like the “Jet Song.” “Gee, Officer Krupke!” and “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love”–are accomplished, paving the way for us to also buy into more serious songs like “Cool” and the music-only “Rumble.”
“West Side Story” remains one of the best musicals of all-time, and it deserves a home theater release that knocks your socks off the way the songs do. This release isn’t a disaster by any means, but it could have been more pristine.
There’s as four-disc version that includes the CD soundtrack, but I’m reviewing the three-disc release, which includes the feature on one Blu-ray disc, bonus features on a second Blu-ray, and a DVD copy of the film. I’ve already summarized the video, but what’s left to add is that “West Side Story” was transferred to a 50GB Blu-ray using the AVC/MPEG-4 codec, and unfortunately there’s more evidence of ghosting than I would have liked for a big title like this. Some of it you can easily overlook because of the quality of the film itself, but other times you can’t help but notice. Same with the noise. Thankfully, everything is else is great: the black levels, the color saturation, the sharpness of detail, the edge delineation.
“West Side Story” is presented in 2.20:1 widescreen.
The audio is an English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that, given the channels, isn’t as dynamic during the songs and high-energy scenes as you’d hope, which leads me to suspect that the rumor that the audio was crafted from previous releases rather than the newly discovered six-track audio. And if it turns out that it was made from the original six-track audio, then we’re back to wondering about the transfer.
Also included here is an English Dolby Digital 4.0 audio, as well as a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and French DTS 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Let’s start with the HD stuff. First there’s “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story,” a 19-minute breakdown of seven dance sequences by dance pros which will appeal to hoofers everywhere. Then there’s a “Song-Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim” (20 min.), who tries to recall what he was thinking about each song 50 years ago. His remarks offer a few surprises but also a few gaps of silence. Then there’s “A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy” (30 min.), which features a round-up of cast, film critics, and music theater folks offering their take on what makes “West Side Story” a standout musical. Fans of the storyboarding process might like “Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage,” which is exactly what it says it is. It runs almost five minutes long. The last HD feature is “Music Machine,” which basically just gives you the chance to watch 20 musical numbers one right after the other, or to pick and choose.
Carried over from the previous DVD release is “West Side Memories,” a 2003 making-of feature that runs about an hour and covers the usual bases: production design, lyrics and dubbing, choreography, cast and crew recollections, etc. It’s actually the best overview on this set, so it’s too bad it’s only in standard definition.
Rounding out the bonus features are four trailers.
This “West Side Story” Blu-ray isn’t the bomb that the doom-and-gloom purists would have you believe. In fact, the average person who isn’t an HD nut and only bought a Blu-ray player because it’s superceding DVD players will probably think it’s a decent presentation. But those sensitive to compression issues will find the artifacts annoying, and the question of the soundtrack troubling.