West Side Story, the classic movie musical, was released to theaters 50 years ago this year. That means two things. First, nearly everyone involved in the project is either old or dead. Second, it’s time to make a little more moolah by finally putting the movie out on a 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray. Can’t do much about the first thing, but you can, and should, get this beautiful version of the classic film. It’s really worth it.
Although it’s a bit too long and is a little dated with dialogue that includes things like “cracko jacko, down goes a teenage hoodlum” and “buddy-boy,” the 1961 film West Side Story could be the best movie musical of all-time. The soundtrack is powered with classics, the dancing includes the best group numbers on film, and the plot is straight from the granddaddy of all good theater, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was a huge hit when it was released, winning 10 Oscars, and taught a generation of gang members that no conflict should get in the way of a good dance-off.
Moving Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers to a different time and place isn’t anything new, so it’s not a big stretch to see the racially divided gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, as the Montagues and Capulets of old. Tony (Richard Beymer), an almost-out-of-the-life Jet, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the kid sister of the top Shark, see each other and nothing else but love and passion. Unfortunately, gang leaders Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Bernardo (George Chakiris) aren’t about to let up on beating the crap out of each other for a little piece of turf. Since, as Riff pragmatically put it, “it’s all we got, huh.” This, of course, means that despite grudging help from Bernardo’s girl and Nurse stand-in Anita (Rita Moreno), all of this is headed for a very tragic ending.
But until then, let’s dance! The music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by co-director Jerome Robbins give the time-worn story pop and life. There are some flat-out amazing dance numbers and they, more even than the singing (mostly done by someone other than the person moving their lips on screen), are the real highlights. The “Prologue,” with the Jets and Sharks fight-dancing around the slums of New York, is near wordless perfection. The dances at the gym and one of my favorite musical numbers of all time, “Cool,” are both bristling with athleticism and tell deep stories, again without words. Other numbers such as “One Hand, One Heart,” “Tonight,” and “America” are classics of the American musical.
The one weakness of the movie (aside from its nearly three-hour running time) is that Beymer is something of a dud as Tony. Well, not a complete dud, and it’s not like he’s given a ton to work with, but it’s not a particularly interesting role or a particularly interesting performance. He’s overshadowed by Riff, Bernardo, and Anita, all of whom give far more inspired performances (especially Chakiris and Moreno, who won Oscars). Wood is good as the innocent Maria, becoming increasingly less innocent due to circumstances, but both her and Beymer are mostly forced to say, “I love you, I love you, I love you” and not much else.
The bottom line is that 50 million West Side Story fans can’t be wrong, and this is the real deal. You can’t do much better in the movie-musical department, and there is even enough social commentary thrown in (watch how both gangs react whenever an adult shows up, it’s like they join together against the real enemy) to keep things interesting. It doesn't feel entirely fresh these 50 years later, but it is good enough to overcome the slight staleness.
I can get a little snarky about releases that celebrate bizarre anniversaries, but I have to admit, a 50th Anniversary combined with a Blu-ray debut is pretty legit for West Side Story. The three-disc set (one is a DVD copy of the film, while there is a Blu-ray copy of the film and a Blu-ray extras disc) gives you very crisp and clear picture and audio, although there is a section of the opening scene that fades to black when it’s supposed to dissolve right to a shot of New York. Apparently there was an error and discs will be replaced for those who want one. It’s not something a non-hardcore fan would probably even notice. Other than that, things look great.
Some of the extras are brought over from earlier DVD releases, including an excellent hour-long documentary called “West Side Memories.” Shot in 2003, it includes interviews with anyone on the creative team that was still alive (Sondheim, Wise, stage writer Arthur Laurents) as well as 1960 radio interviews with Jerome Robbins. Most of the cast is also included (except Wood, for obvious reasons, and Chakiris, for not-so-obvious reasons), and the memories include Robbins getting fired half-way through the shoot and the overdubbing of the vocals for almost everyone, including Wood, Beymer, Tamblyn, and even Moreno on one song. There are some good behind-the-scenes insights and even footage shot by someone with a home movie camera that shows iconic scenes from different angles. It’s all really great.
The new featurette, a 30-minute waste of time called “A Place for Us” looks weak in comparison to the 2003 extra. Sondheim is the only principal interviewed and the only actors are a couple of Shark girls. The rest of the discussion is filled up with people not involved in the movie (directors, choreographers, writers, a couple of people who played roles on stage, Leonard Berstein’s daughter) who talk about the legacy of the play and movie. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, they don’t say anything meaningful other than “Wow, it’s a great show and it means a lot to everyone.”
The movie itself doesn’t have a commentary track. You can get a brief commentary from Sondheim at the beginning of each song, but not as you watch the movie. So you have to go to each song individually, listen to his short comments, and then immediately get sent back to the menu, right in the middle of a song. It’s annoying. You can also go right to each song and skip the talking bits altogether.
The best item on the movie disc (besides the movie itself) is something called “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story,” which you can watch while you watch the movie or as a separate featurette. Before each musical number, there is a short featurette on the dance that is dropped into the movie. So the movie is going along and then this featurette on “America” or whatever starts, and then when it’s over, it goes back to the movie and you watch “America” and then the movie continues. It’s great and the featurettes are both short and interesting.
Finally, there are a few trailers and one five-minute comparison of story art to the actual scenes, but the older documentary, dancing featurettes, and movie itself are the real treats of this set. It’s a great movie, great music, and a true American classic, pretty well presented. Can’t do much better than that.