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WEST SIDE STORY
Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris
Directors:  Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.20:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  152 Minutes
Release Date:  April 1, 2003

"Doc, I'm in love!"
"And you're not frightened?"
"Should I be?"
"No...no, I'm frightened enough for the both of you."

Film ****

West Side Story is by far the most cinematic of all movie musicals…so much so, that it’s somewhat difficult to compare it with the more standardized Hollywood offering, a la Singin’ in the Rain or Gigi.  Though it enjoyed a highly successful stage run, what co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins have captured on film is truly an entity all it’s own.  Gone are the traditional staginess of the production numbers, or the obvious looking backdrops, or ornate costuming.  Gone, as a matter of fact, are most of the aspects that made West Side Story such a theatrical experience.  Instead, the movie teems with life and energy, and seems constantly on the verge of bursting out of its aperture.  And, like Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet on which the film is loosely based, there is an undercurrent of tragedy evident right from the opening frames.  While we are caught up in the characters, mesmerized by the dancing, entranced by the cinematic beauty and hooked by the story, we are nonetheless watching with a kind of helplessness, knowing that the people on screen are headed for a disaster of their own making.

The story takes place in a rough neighborhood in New York where two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, have obviously been menacing one another for some time.  At the heart of the tale is the travesty of racism, as the white Jets, led by Riff (Tamblyn) are paranoid about the presence of the Puerto Rican Sharks, and the ever increasing presence of those islanders in their territory.  Likewise, the Sharks, led by Bernardo (Chakiris) dislike and mistrust the whites, and resent what many of his people believe is the falsity of the American melting pot ideal.  There’s going to be a war, and nothing or nobody will be able to stop it.

But amidst the fear and hatred of rival gangs arises a beautiful love story between two rather innocent bystanders.  Tony (Beymer) is a former Jet, who still loves his old buddies but is trying to move on with his life.  And Maria (Wood), is a sweet young Hispanic girl on the verge of adulthood in America, and also happens to be Bernardo’s sister.  Their love is instant and powerful, and is almost enough to make you believe for a moment that the love of two good people can overcome the overwhelming power of hatred that surrounds them.  But how can it, when everyone else is unable or unwilling to let go of their anger?

Aside from the terrific, moving story, there is much about the film to be loved and praised.  The acting is all first rate, possibly the best of any movie musical.  Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood bring a sweet conviction to their roles—indeed, though Ms. Wood might at first seem an odd choice to play a Puerto Rican woman, she absolutely shines in her performance.  She turns out to be quite perfect.  Rounding out the cast are Russ Tamblyn, who also brings a highly entertaining and acrobatic dancing style to his role, George Chakiris, whose Bernardo is the right mix of anger, disappointment and cynicism, and of course, the wonderful Rita Moreno in her Oscar winning role.  She is funny and delightful, but when her character becomes involved in one of the movie’s most horrifying scenes, she delivers a heartfelt and emotional performance that you won’t forget.

And every frame of the movie is a singular masterpiece of technical filmmaking.  From the opening shots, which establish with hardly any words the ongoing gang war, to the elegant and impressive production numbers, to the expert uses of lighting, color and camera movements, this film sustains an energy and urgency for its entire 2 ½ hour running length.  Once it grabs you, it won’t let go.  Even the end credits are a unique and visual experience, and close the movie on just the right note of sobriety and reflection.

But of course, the movie wouldn’t be what it is without the amazing, sometimes frantic, sometimes haunting, always beautiful music of Leonard Bernstein, and the impressive, sometimes funny, sometimes somber lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.  These elements, along with Jerome Robbins’ unparalleled choreography, really make West Side Story the landmark of musical films that it is.  Consider a dance number toward the end of the picture, where the angry and frightened Jets try to maintain their composure to the tune of “Play it Cool”.  The music, lyrics and dancing all come together to make the scene an absolute marvel of pent up energy and simmering emotion, like a giant spring about to burst from its coil.  It’s intense, and hypnotic, and demonstrates how powerful the medium of the musical can actually be.  And, of course, the film is filled with many other memorable numbers, including “I Feel Pretty”, “Something’s Coming”, “When You’re A Jet”, “Maria”, and one of the funniest ones you’ll ever see, “Gee Officer Krupke”.  It’s a rare moment where the kids actually behave like kids, cutting up and having a little fun for a change.

But the heart of the story is a very human tragedy, and one of the most devastating kinds…the kind we bring on ourselves.  The kind that could have been avoided if it wasn’t so much in our nature to instinctively fear and loathe the things we don’t understand.  Like in Do The Right Thing, it’s something that is a long time in the making, lasts only minutes, and will change forever the lives of the people involved.

Even if you’re not a fan of the movie musical, you should not deprive yourself of the cinematic pleasure that is West Side Story.  It’s more than one of the best musicals ever made.  It’s one of the best films of any category.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn would eventually work together again on David Lynch’s television show Twin Peaks, as Benjamin Horne and Dr. Jacobi, respectively.

Video ***1/2

High marks to MGM for a stellar anamorphic transfer!  This DVD should be considered in the same league quality wise as Singin’ in the Rain, My Fair Lady, or American in Paris.  The print is remarkably clear given its age, with very little in the way of noticeable marks and scars.  Images are sharp and clear throughout, with excellent color rendering and no bleeding.  Only one short sequence, where Tony sings “Maria”, seemed to have a bit of a color saturation problem, but it only lasts a minute or two, and certainly doesn’t detract from the overall beauty and brilliance of this anamorphic transfer. 

Audio ***1/2

The disc also boasts a new 5.1 soundtrack, which is actually more useful in this film than might have been in other musicals, given the number of “big” scenes, including the street fighting.  The surround channels add to the dynamism and energy of these sequences.  And of course, Mr. Bernstein’s music sounds crisp and beautiful throughout.

Features ***

This double disc special edition boasts a number of good extras, starting with "West Side Memories", a new hour long documentary featuring fresh interviews with Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Robert Wise, Stephen Sondheim and more, plus archival interview bits featuring Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins.  Especially welcome is the chance to hear some of the original recordings made by Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn pre-dubbing!  Ms. Wood actually had a charming voice, but the music was a tad demanding, and frankly, there didn't seem to be any good reason to remove Mr. Tamblyn's singing!

There is also the original intermission music enhanced for 5.1 sound, animated storyboard to film comparisons, five trailers plus promos for other MGM films, and a photo gallery.

The set comes with an extensive scrapbook, too, that features the entire screenplay, an introduction by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, lobby brochure reproduction, film reviews, memos, and photos...fans will love leafing through it!

Summary:

West Side Story is the rare theatrical triumph that managed to break theatrical conventions and become a uniquely cinematic triumph upon making its way to the big screen.  This is a powerful, absorbing, beautifully tragic American film with a terrific cast, great music and songs, and impeccable direction and technical merits.  It’s everything a serious movie lover could want, wrapped up in one sumptuous package.