If you ever told someone about West Side Story who didn’t know anything about it, their response is likely to be, ‘That sounds awful!’ It is a concept you really wouldn’t think would work on the screen, except for a niche audience. After all, it is essentially a film that asks you to accept a bunch of street toughs who sort everything out with ballet, and which features plot twists (admittedly borrowed from Romeo & Juliet) that are far-fetched to say the least.
However thanks to an incredible conjunction of talent, it doesn’t just work but is one of the greatest musicals ever created. As you probably know, the film is essentially Romeo & Juliet but transferred to the streets of New York, with the Capulets and Montagues replaced by the white street gang The Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Tony (Beymer) is a Jet who’s leaving the youthful gang life behind. At a dance designed to bring the Sharks and Jets together, he meets and immediately falls for Maria (Wood), sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris). They begin a hidden romance, but with the rivalry between the gangs leading towards a fateful ‘rumble’, things aren’t likely to be easy for the star-crossed lovers.
First credit needs to go to Leonard Bernstein, who may well have created the best musical score ever for West Side Story. It is an astonishing piece of work, where every piece of music is a classic (even if you don’t know the songs by name, they’re so infused into popular culture that you’ll know the tune). It’s also probably still the best thing lyricist Stephen Sondheim has ever done. While he went on from West Side Story’s 1958 Broadway debut to become a composing and writing god to the musical theatre cognoscenti, the Jets & Sharks remain his masterpiece.
Film-wise, whoever had the idea of teaming stage director/choreographer Jerome Robbins with Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still, Mary Poppins), was a genius. Admittedly, Robbins was removed from the project before it finished shooting because his incessant perfectionism was causing the movie to go over-schedule and over-budget, but by that point he’d infused the whole thing with an incredible style and feel that’s never been beaten. Jerome was in charge of the musical sequences while Wise did the drama, which works impressively well. Together they created a world that seems both real and hyper-real, gritty and fantastical. It’s particularly noticeable on the Blu-ray, where the enhanced palette highlights how colour was used to stylise what are otherwise quite realistic settings – just note how there’s rarely a shot with the Jets on screen without a vibrant dash of red in the background.
It is a wonderful movie where it’s difficult not to be impressed by the athleticism of the dancers. Nowadays with a musical, everybody has to do their own singing but it’s not so important whether you’re a great dancer or not, but back then they were happy to have people lip-syncing to others’ voices (neither Richard Beymer nor Natalie Wood did their own singing) but boy you had better know how to dance. That’s especially true with Jerome Robbins, who was a true master at choreography but demanded a huge amount from people both in style and sheer athleticism. The results are incredible to watch, especially in HD.
As mentioned, the Blu-ray really enhances the movie’s colour palette, which helps ensure the film looks great. Although there are a few oddly fuzzy shots that seem to have fallen in from a different movie, this new HD master, taken from the 70mm negatives, is beautiful to look at. Indeed, it probably hasn’t looked as good since those 70mm prints were first screened back in 1961. It’s a great disc for the student of film, as West Side Story is one of the best movies to watch if you want to understand how things like colour, camera placement and framing actually affect a film. The movie is a masterclass in that and the Blu-ray really shows it off, so that the film-nerd’s heart will skip an extra beat at some of the wonderfully elegant camera moves and the clever way Robbins & Wise use the height things are filmed from to help tell the story.
Alongside the movie is a new ‘in-film’ feature, ‘Pow! The Dances of West Side Story’, which breaks into the movie before each major dance sequences so that the surviving cast and crew, along with later musical luminaries like Susan Stroman and Adam Shankman, can talk about the dance numbers. It’s surprisingly interesting and definitely worth a look, especially as West Wise Story is one of the few major film musicals that uses dance to actually tell the story, rather than just as a nice thing to accompany the songs. That said, ‘Pow!’ does assume you know at least the basics of the behind-the-scenes trouble that surrounded Jerome Robbins hiring and firing. If you don’t it’s probably best to watch the fascinating hour-long documentary ‘West Side Memories’ first, which works as a wonderful primer both to the musical itself as well as the making of the movie.
Also included is a very interesting half-hour look at the legacy of the film, which notes quite how deep West Side Story has embedded itself into modern culture, from scenes in Family Guy to the fact David Lynch deliberately cast two of the Jets in Twin Peaks. Stephen Sondheim provides a pithy song-specific commentary, and there are a few other bit and pieces ensuring that while it isn’t the lengthiest features selection the world has ever seen, it is a very high quality one.
Overall Verdict: The premise of West Wide Story may be a slightly bizarre idea, but thanks to an astonishing conjunction of talent, it’s one of the best musical ever, which looks astonishing on Blu-ray.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac