West Side Story

West Side Story (1961)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn
Extras: Intermission Music, Documentary, Storyboard-to-Film Comparison, Photo Gallery, Trailers

If anyone doubts the lasting influence of "West Side Story, " look no further than Adam Sandler and Robert DeNiro. In his current slob-a-thon "Anger Management, " Adam and co-star Jack Nicholson perform a duet of "I Feel Pretty" in the middle of rush hour traffic on a New York expressway while DeNiro warbles a phrase of the same song in a padded cell at the beginning of "Analyze That." Coincidence or Kismet?

MGM Home Entertainment returns a second time to revisit the multi-Oscar winning 1961 musical on DVD. The first edition released in 1998 was a bare-bones edition, with a decent transfer, a 5.1 soundtrack and a theatrical re-release trailer. This time around, a new spiffed out "DVD Collector’s Set" provides new extras like a newly produced documentary with many of the principals, trailers including a really funky semi-animated conceptual teaser, storyboards, photos and even the original intermission music.

I count "West Side Story" as one of my favorite movie musicals. "Story" transplants Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" from 16th century Verona to 1960s West Side Manhattan. Instead of the warring Montagues and Capulets, there are the rival street gangs Jets and Sharks. The mostly Anglo, "native-born" Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Puerto Rico-emigrated Sharks, headed by Bernardo (Oscar winner George Chakiris), continually rumble and vie for mastery of their turf. When former Jet Tony (Richard Beymer) meets Bernardo’s sister Maria (Natalie Wood) at a high school dance, Shakespeare’s tragedy of young star-crossed love enters into the modern age.

Yes, it’s an old-fashioned movie musical. Yes, people break out into song and dance at a drop of a hat. Watching it again was in some ways seeing it for the first time and frankly not for the better. In the past, I really dug how there was absolutely no attempt to bridge the reality of the location shots of the NY streets with the artificiality of Boris Leven’s production design. Now, even the "gritty" streets seem whitewashed and sanitized. Even by 1960s standards, Natalie Wood was miscast for the part of Maria. Political correctness notwithstanding, while the part requires a broad range of emotional expression, her musical moments really aren’t hers, since Marni Nixon, who vocally stood in for Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady," does the same for Natalie here. (As for the PC issue, that is the subject for a whole another article. After all, no one had problems with the Russian-born Yul Brynner playing the King of Siam in "The King and I.")
Finally, until "Grease" dethroned it in 1978, "Story" boasted a cast of the oldest looking teenagers ever assembled for a film.

So why do I still count "West Side Story" as a favorite of mine? In a word, exuberance. What makes the film still vital today is its vigorously beating heart of sheer physical energy. Tragedies rarely make for great musicals, which are inherently romantic and upbeat by nature. Even without the literary baggage of Shakespeare’s source, "Story" represented the Broadway equivalent of a planetary alignment with Jerome Robbins’ direction and choreography, Arthur Laurents’ book and Stephen Sondheim’s and Leonard Bernstein’s music and lyrics. All the Shakespearean themes — pride, racial hatred, social dysfunction, doomed love — found corresponding physical expression in every musical and dance number. Robert Wise co-directed with Robbins and eventually took over completely. Not only did Wise bring his directorial elegance, but if you want to witness his savvy as an editor (after all, he did edit "Citizen Kane"!) watch the breathtaking cross-cutting of the "Tonight" ensemble scene (Chapter 13). Okay, I’ve gushed enough already. What all this blather is supposed to convey is that while some of "West Side Story" is starting to show its age, what’s timeless about it will definitely carry it through this century and possibly the next one…at least through a few more home entertainment formats.

The 2.35 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer looks on par with the first DVD release. Colors read clean and deep here. Numerous scenes are awash in solid reds and the image was always sharp without bleed or break-up. Detail delineation is also strong, due to Daniel Fapp’s Panavision 70 cinematography. The transfer shows their mostly clean-shaven faces and picture-perfect Brylcreemed hair (so much for street urchins!) sharp and clear. The source print for the most part looked spotless. I did notice a few instances of edge enhancement, but not to total distraction.

The package states "new 5.1 audio" but it sounds exactly the same as the <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio on the previous DVD release. For its age, the soundtrack exhibits surprising dynamic range during the musical passages. The front soundstage opens appropriately for an expansive sound and the surrounds chime in when necessary. Other than that, the rear channels have little to do regarding ambient noises or sound effects, save for the opening scene where the Jets’ signature whistle moves from the front to back just before the overture. French and Spanish mono tracks are available on the disc as well.

The first disc contains the movie along with a single "extra:" the inclusion of the original intermission music. In the road show era of movies, the big event films were treated almost like Broadway engagements, requiring advance ticket purchases and offering patrons musical overtures before the main title credits and intermissions. "West Side Story" was no different. However, Wise has always stated that he intended the film to unfold without interruption. Over the years, theatrical revivals and video releases, including the original DVD, honored that caveat. This time around, we get the "Entr’acte" music. However, the choice of "I Feel Pretty" seems a bit odd, since the second half opens with the musical number of…"I Feel Pretty!" The disc gives the option of playing the film with or without the intermission music.

The second disc houses the bulk of the supplements. The centerpiece is a newly produced retrospective documentary. Running a full hour, "West Side Memories" covers a lot of historical ground. Stars Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Tony Mordente ("Action"), along with Robert Wise, Stephen Sondheim, executive producer Walter Mirisch, Hal Prince (original Broadway show producer) chime in not only about the trials of filming a musical on location, but also discuss with candor some of the less glamorous aspects of the film’s genesis, including the dismissal of Jerome Robbins as co-director. (His exacting perfectionism brought the film production way over budget and over schedule.) Wood’s casting (defended by just about everyone), the almost wholesale vocal dubbing (not only Wood and Beymer were dubbed, but Tamblyn and Moreno as well!) and their thoughts about the film four decades after the fact makes for a very enjoyable if almost exhausting examination of the movie.

A brief section is devoted to Maurice Zuberano’s beautiful pre-production sketches and how they ultimately translated into the film. Set against music, the comparison goes back and forth between sketch and celluloid. Interestingly, many of the shots are almost literal translations of Zuberano’s drawings.

A menu option entitled "Film Archives" opens into another sub-menu featuring "Trailers," "Original Intermission Music" and "Photo Galleries." The trailers include "Original Theatrical," "Original Issue," "Reissue" and "Animated." Differences between them are a little blurry, since the "Original Theatrical" and "Reissue" play almost identically, save for a tighter letterbox on the "Theatrical" and different characters for the on-screen text. The real gem of this section is the "Animated" trailer. Running about two minutes, it’s really a teaser since it only offers the music against a montage of Zuberano sketches. The way it’s done, however, is just amazing; it’s practically an animated Cliff’s Notes of the movie. If anyone has seen Spielberg’s last movie "Catch Me If You Can" and dug the main titles, they will get a kick of the animated trailer here. Still galleries of the storyboards and photos of the production design and behind the scenes filming round out the disc-based extras.

The final special feature is a hefty booklet included with the DVD. Because of its almost 200 page length, the DVD required a special box-set design. The book not only contains the entire shooting script, complete with revised pages in different colors, but a reprint of the lobby brochure, photos of newspaper review clippings, even a memo from Robert Wise with specific instructions to theater exhibitors about the presentation, including how to lower the lights in conjunction with the opening overture. Glancing through it, I kept thinking on how this extra would have cost me upwards of $100 in the laserdisc days.

With all the renewed interest in movie musicals now, "West Side Story" still remains one of the best examples of the craft. For those who already have the first DVD of "Story" and are content with just having the movie, there really isn’t a need to upgrade to the DVD Collector’s Set. The set is really designed for the die-hard fans and they, as I, will not be disappointed by the care and quality MGM Home Entertainment lavished on it.