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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 2.20:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer ( )
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • French: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • German: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Greek, Hungarian, Dutch, Portuguese, English - Hearing Impaired, Turkish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, German - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • 4 Theatrical trailer
  • 9 Photo gallery
  • Animated menus
  • Booklet
  • 3 Storyboards
  • Documentaries
  • User-activated branching

West Side Story: SE

MGM/MGM Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 152 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

West Side Story is here, and it's younger than ever.

That's the catchcry used in two of the theatrical trailers presented in this special edition package of the classic musical, and it still rings true today.

This spectacular Panavision 70 movie from 1961 does not have the outright musical punch of the original Broadway production of four years earlier, which featured Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera. The original Broadway cast recording is still the definitive account of this musical.

Still, the film more than compensates for that in sheer imagery and physicality, as the cast gives explosive flesh to Jerome Robbins' choreography. That choreography links jazz and classical ballet in a fusion which is still potent today, with no sign that it was first created for stage almost 50 years ago.

West Side Story took Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and propelled that story into the world of New York's ethnic gang warfare. The musical was the brainchild of Jerome Robbins, but it owes its lasting potency most of all to Leonard Bernstein, who created a musical score of genius. It combines lyric beauty with jagged punchy aggression. It is a masterwork of 20th century music.

The film was co-directed by Jerome Robbins and veteran Robert Wise (whose credits include The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music) - well, almost co-directed.

Although both Wise and Robbins received Oscars for 'Best Direction', during shooting Robbins proved too precious about his baby, insisting on remake after remake, scene after scene. He completed all the preparatory cinematic choreography, but was removed as co-director after about 60 per cent of the film had been shot. But the basics were laid down by then - Wise just had to guide the project home from then on.

The overall presentation, in terms of choreography, scenic design, direction and editing, are so strong that the film even survives two major and potentially crippling flaws; poor casting of its two Romeo and Juliet leads. Both Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony seem inadequate for these archetypal roles. Natalie is very pretty but, except for her effective closing scene, she seems to be a tad out of her depth. Richard Beymer isn't out of his depth, he's more under water. He just smiles, or grimaces - he is a mobile mannequin.

And the Academy seemed to recognise this when it came to Oscars night. In terms of Oscars, West Side Story is the third most celebrated movie of all time, winning ten Oscars out of 11 nominations. But neither Natalie nor Richard were rewarded or even nominated. Instead, 'Best Supporting' Oscars went to George Chakiris as Bernardo and Rita Moreno as Anita - and both were totally deserved.

But forget individual performances. Strong as George Chakiris and Rita Moreno are, the real stars of this musical are Bernstein's great score and the sensational ensemble dance routines staged by Jerome Robbins. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are probably the best he ever created, and the gritty, evocative and richly hued set designs by Boris Leven are the final ingredient in an almost perfect cinematic realisation of the stage musical.

The American musical was one of the great artistic expressions of the 20th century, and West Side Story was in many ways that tradition's culmination. This movie still stands as a tremendous achievement, preserving the essence of the original Broadway play, but presenting it as a true cinematic experience, totally valid in its own right without reference to the stage original.

  Video
Contract

This new transfer is presented in anamorphic widescreen in its original cinema ratio of 2.20:1.

The transfer shows some slight shimmering effects on occasion, but this is never unduly worrying. The overall quality is exceptional, with deep rich hues and luscious blacks. The movie features a wonderful design palette, and the DVD gives that original design its full expression.

There are some occasional marks or flecks, but they're extremely transitory, and never present any impediment to enjoyment of a great cinematic experience.

  Audio
Contract

The basic track is English Dolby Digital 5.1, which gives total expression to the original six-channel Todd-AO recording. The soundtrack is strong and powerful, with Bernstein's score given punchy, hair-raising presence.

The other language tracks (French, Spanish, Italian and German) are mono for dialogue, but branch seamlessly to the English 5.1 track for the musical numbers. The liner notes mention only two languages, omitting reference to the Italian and German. Those same liner notes list only English, French and Spanish subtitles, instead of the 16 available through menu selection.

  Extras
Contract

This two-disc 'Special Edition' carries the film only on Disc One, with all special features on the second disc.

But Disc One does have a 'sort-of' special feature, in that for the first time the original intermission music has been included as part of the movie. There were two schools of thought on this. The creators basically liked the idea of letting the movie flow through without a break, but exhibitors wanted to sell popcorn midway through this very long movie. And for its first release, the exhibitors won.

We can have it either way. Select 'play', and before the film begins and we're offered the choice - the film in its integral form, or with the intermission music restored. I suggest the latter, just to hear more of Bernstein's great score.

And now onto Disc Two. First up is the main feature, a 56-minute new documentary, West Side Memories. This is quite meaty, presenting scriptwriter Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Broadway co-producer Hal Prince, executive producer Walter Mirisch, director Robert Wise and actors Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn among others in a pretty exhaustive trawl through the past. Missing in action is Jerome Robbins, who died a few years back, but excerpts of a radio interview he gave in 1960 are featured at intervals throughout.

Also missing in action is George Chakiris, which is odd since he won an Oscar for his role. Could it be that his strange lack of success after West Side Story rankles?

There are some fascinating details about the production - especially about why so many of the actors lost their own voices, with singing dubbed instead by professionals. We hear Natalie Wood singing her own part, and we can totally understand why Marni Nixon, one of Hollywood's most experienced vocal stand-ins, was called. Marni is deservedly famous; other vocal roles she performed include Eliza in My Fair Lady, for Audrey Hepburn.

Rita Moreno was a singer, but her part was dubbed for this. So was the singing of Richard Beymer and that of Russ Tamblyn. Strangely, the clip shown here of Russ Tamblyn singing his own part shows he was a better singer for the role than his vocal double.

Then we come to the photo/storyboard galleries. There is a montage presentation, to music, of production designs, linking them to actual scenes from the movie. This is followed by static presentations of production designs and storyboards.

The next menu item, Behind the Scenes, is the most disappointing. There are ten 'chapters', each with half a dozen or so photographs, presented as minute black and white snaps framed within a confusingly vivid design. The 'chapters' include 'Jerome Robbins Holds an Audition', 'Early Rehearsals', 'On Location in New York' and so forth, but are pretty scrappy and of little real interest.

There are four movie trailers. The first is an 'animated' trailer, a widescreen presentation with very scratchy one-channel sound, but with very effective animated graphics to present the feel of the movie. No dialogue, just great animation and music.

Second is what is called the 'original' trailer, but which seems to be a re-release version, featuring the 'West Side Story is Younger than Ever' tag. It is widescreen, again with poor one-channel sound, but showing very effective editing and restrained use of dialogue.

Third up is a trailer prepared after the Academy Awards, boasting of its ten Oscars. It's basically the same as the 'original' version, but with more dialogue. The menu on the DVD titles these two in incorrect reverse order.

The final preview seems to be the true 'original', which is more like a newsreel than a preview, focusing on the excitement of the New York premiere. It's in widescreen, and is very evocative of the excitement of the time. The two-channel sound is presented in pretty fair quality.

A great feature comes not in the discs, but in the packaging -- this wonderful boxed set contains a 200-page paperback book which presents a few notes of pages at the front, but basically consists of the entire shooting script plus photographs from that shoot.

The script reveals how Hollywood's notorious Production Code forced the film-makers to water down the Broadway version somewhat. On stage, during the famous Quintet, Anita sings:

Anita's gonna get her kicks

Tonight.
We'll have our private little mix
Tonight.
He'll walk in hot and tired.
So what.
No matter if he's tired
As long as he's hot
Tonight!

For film, the script gets changed to:

He'll walk in hot and tired.
Poor dear,
No matter if he's tired
As long as he's here
Tonight!

Total emasculation! My ears tell me that in the movie, Rita Moreno sings 'near' instead of 'here'; the result still sounds lame compared to the sultry sexiness of the original.

The booklet includes at the end a replica of the original 44-page cinema program; a wonderful piece of history, plus some production notes and original review clippings.

  Overall  
Contract

Anyone who loves film, great music, or both, should own this set. In terms of packaging too, it's one of the best thought-out presentations we've seen, with a handsome slip-cover housing the 200-page booklet, and a separate fold-out cardboard case for the two movie discs. It's sensational packaging, on par with the Region 2 presentations from Fox of the Buffy series and Criterion's Region 1 boxes for Monterey Pop and Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel cycle.


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  •  DVD NET Gold Review List 
      And I quote...
    "Sensational presentation of an epochal American musical. It's gold, gold, gold!"
    - Anthony Clarke
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          Panasonic A330
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