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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

West Side Story
50th Anniversary Edition


Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakaris
MGM & Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
RRP: £15.99
Certificate: PG
Available 17 October 2011

There can be few movie and Broadway fans that haven’t seen West Side Story, at some time or another, so it’s nice to see such a popular piece finally make it out onto Blu-ray. Although the film is showing its age it still looks impressive in its new Blu version.

The film originally started out life as a Broadway show, with a story generally based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The music was by Leonard Bernstein with the lyrics being provided by, a then new to Broadway, talent in the form of Stephen Sondheim. There was an attempt to make the show something different; not only in its modern outlook, but also in the way the whole show was constructed. Hitherto, all shows had song and dance numbers, but these had been slotted in between the action. West Side Story attempted and succeeded in making the dance, music and story so intertwined that to remove any element would have left a noticeable hole in the show.

West Side Story (1961 - 2 hr, 33 min, 43 sec) was the film version of the show, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The director’s credit was shared as Wise had never directed a musical so Robbins, who had directed the dancers in the stage version, was brought in. That said, the transition between the two directors is seamless. Robbins’s far from doing a pedestrian job at directing used many innovations to get the best out of his dancers and the best dynamic record of their performances. The film stared Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and David Winters.

The film won ten of the eleven Academy Awards it was nominated for in 1961 and ended up being the most successful musical committed to film. It continues to resonate down the years with the most recent incarnation being the Glee kids putting on a version of the show.

The story concerns the gang culture, in 1950’s New York, between the immigrant Puerto Ricans and the Jets, the Irish, catholic youths in their area. Driven by hate and boredom the gangs regularly clash over territory, however one evening, Maria (Natalie Wood) meets Tony Wycek (Richard Beymer), a co-founder of the Jets, who has turned his back on gang life. The two falls in love, but this only causes more tension between the gangs. Given that the story is based on Romeo and Juliet, it is no surprise that the first act ends with death and the film closes with the death of a major character.

In many ways the film, like the show, is a very downbeat affair, there has been some attempt to balance, what in essence is a tragedy with lighter songs, like ‘Officer Krupke’ and the exuberant ‘America’, but the true heart of the film's score resides in ‘Somewhere’ a desperate plea for peace and space to love, which flies in the face of the lovers reality.

The extras on the first disc include Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim, which is informative, but when he stops speaking the song also skips to the next one, I can’t help feeling it would have been better to let each song either play to the end or get Sondheim to say more. The Music Machine lets you play only the musical numbers, useful when you feel like a sudden burst of ‘America’, or the slickly smoothness of the, not as good as the Tom Waite’s version, of 'Somewhere'.

POW! The Dances of west Side Story which can be played in either movie mode or individually, were members of the cast, as well as film makers , dancers and choreographers analyse each dance sequence.

Audio settings are suitably impressive with an English DTS-HD 7.1, an English 4.0 as well as Spanish, French and German DD 5.1 tracks, plus eleven subtitles tracks.

Disc two holds a number of extras. A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy, which is further split into Creation and Innovation (15 min, 09 sec) and A Timeless Vision (14 min, 19 sec), both of which look at the impact of the film and, let’s face it, just how clever the direction, cinematography and shoot turned out, including the production design and costuming.

West Side Memories (55 min 55 sec) covers everything you might need to know around the filming and is a pretty extensive documentary. The last two pieces are Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage (4 min, 50 sec) is a small piece, which does what it says on the tin, the second disc wraps up with four Trailers for the film.

Even if you don’t like musical theatre, West Side Story, still remains a masterful piece of film making. If you own a copy on DVD, then it is well worth upgrading to the Blu-ray for the better sound and picture.


Charles Packer

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