What do you call something that combines gang warfare, race relations and Shakespeare? Well, if you add infectious songs and unbelievable dancing, you call it West Side Story. More Jets and Sharks in our review of the 50th Anniversary West Side Story Blu-ray after the jump.
My wife loves musicals. I love movies. I thought watching West Side Story together might be time well spent as a couple. As it turns out, for me, it was time well spent as a film-lover and student of the craft.
For those unfamiliar with the story, there are two rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks, at the center of the story and they’re involved in a turf war. Much like Romeo and Juliet, two star-crossed lovers come together, one from each side of the gang divide. From the Jets, gang graduate Tony, steps up to support his former comrades-in-arms and, to do so, attends a dance. Maria tags along with her brother, Sharks leader Bernardo. Tony and Maria instantly become smitten, transported to another world. They share a kiss, infuriating Bernardo, who agrees to a war council with the Jets to set up terms of a battle. After, Maria asks her love Tony to stop the fighting however he can. His interference leads to the Sharks ridiculing him for his cowardice until his best friend Riff steps in to defend his honor, ultimately escalating the fight beyond the mano a mano fisticuffs originally intended. Blood is spilled on both sides as Bernardo stabs Riff and Tony retaliates. Despite the fact that he just killed her brother, Maria agrees to Tony’s plan to flee. Unfortunately, she’s sidetracked by an officer investigating the murder and sends her friend (and Bernardo’s girlfriend) Anita to get word to Tony. Initially of a mind to do so, her temperament changes when the Jets harass her. She tells them to pass word to Tony that Chino shot Maria in revenge, sending Tony out into the night seeking his own fateful demise…
I am not a West Side Story scholar, but if people (especially film students) aren’t talking about the beautiful stylization of this film every hour of every day, it’s getting a disservice. This movie is a how-to guide on combining all the artistry of filmmaking to create a statement. Wardrobe pops with color. Angles evoke emotion. After finishing the film, I immediately looked up who the Director of Photography and, sure enough, Daniel L. Frapp also lensed one of my favorite films, The Great Escape.
Star of the screen Natalie Wood breathes life into Maria. Opposite her, Richard Beymer channels the charisma of a young Elvis, who was, oddly enough, also up for the role of Tony. EGOT winning Rita Moreno plays Anita, who may have the biggest emotional arc in the film, vacillating between love and hate. This earned her an Academy Award for Supporting Actress. Gang leaders Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Bernardo (George Chakiris, who also won the Academy Award for Supporting) ably define their characters. The gangs of dancers on both sides of the Jets/Sharks division bring the Jerome Robbins choreography to sharp, beautiful life. The dancing itself is a character, a combination of smooth ballet with sharp jazz infusions, which gives this film even more spectacle.
Audio options are English 7.1 DTS, English 4.0 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 DTS, German 5.1 DTS with optional subtitles in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portugese, German, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Japanese and Danish.
Blu-Ray disc one, the main feature disc, includes Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim (which allows play all or song specific), Music Machine (jump to songs, sans Sondheim’s commentary), Pow! The Dances of West Side Story. Pow can be played in movie or on its own and includes Prologue, Dance at the Gym, Tony and Maria’s Cha Cha, America, The Rumble, Maria’s Roof Dance, and Cool. Commentary comes from those involved with the film as well as choreographers.
The second Blu-Ray disc, dedicated to the special features includes A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy, West Side Memories, a five minute Storyboard to film Comparison Montage as well as the original theatrical trailer, the original issue trailer, the reissue trailer and an animated trailer.
A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy is split into two parts: Creation and Innovation and A Timeless Vision. Creation and Innovation is fifteen minutes looking back on the way the musical has infiltrated pop culture and such luminaries as Adam Shankman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jamie Bernstein (Leonard’s daughter) Stephen Sondheim, Susan Stroman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Debbie Allen cite its influence. Another fourteen minutes go into A Timeless Vision, a look at the phenomenal stylization of the film.
West Side Memories is a fifty-six minute look back at its creation, including playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Executive Producer Walter Mirisch, Producer/Co-Director Robert Wise, Assistant Director Robert Relyea, Richard Beymer (Tony), Tony Mordente (Action), Rita Moreno (Anita), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Harvey Hohnecker (Mouthpiece), Hal Prince from the 1957 Broadway production as well as West Side historians and archival words from Jerome Robbins. It takes turns focusing on each of its important creative personalities, in addition to a nice extended look at how the Prologue came together and a chance to actually hear Natalie Wood’s singing performance (especially I Feel Pretty).
The DVD has English 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish Mono and French Mono sound options with subtitles in Spanish and English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Scene selection is available as is the special feature of Music Machine.
Between the brilliant choreography, expertly executed, the combined musical talents of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and the technical craftsmanship of director Robert Wise and DP Daniel L. Frapp , West Side Story is the perfect movie musical. I will challenge you to a fight if you disagree. Skins, because I ain’t no coward.
FINAL GRADE: A