West Side Story

 

West Side Story

(50th Anniversary Edition)

Book by Arthur Laurents

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman

Music by Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics by Steven Sondheim

Music Supervision: Saul Chaplin & Johnny Green

Choreography: Jerome Robbins

Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp

Production Design: Boris Leven

Costume Design: Irene Sharaff

Sound: Fred Lau

Editor: Thomas Stanford

Produced by: Robert Wise & Walter Mirisch

Directed by Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins

1961

 

Cast:

Natalie Wood

Richard Beymer

Rita Moreno

Russ Tamblyn

George Chakiris

Jay Norman

Jose De Vega

Tucker Smith

Simon Oakland

Ned Glass

 

Production Studio:

Theatrical: The Mirisch Corporation & Seven Arts Productions

Video: MGM & 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

 

Video

Aspect ratio: 1.35:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: AVC

Disc Size: BD50

Feature Size: 39 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate-Low (20-25 Mbps)

Runtime: 153 minutes

Chapters: 31

Region: Free

 

Audio:

English DTS-HD MA 5.1

English Dolby Digital 4.0

French DTS 5.1

German DTS 5.1

Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1

English Dolby Digital 2.0 (commentary)

 

Subtitles:

Optional: English, English (SDH), Chinese (traditional and simplified), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish & Swedish

 

Extras:

Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim

Pow! The Dances of West Side Story – in HD (19:10)

Music Machine – in HD (95 min)

A Place for Us: West Side Story's Legacy – in HD (29:25)

West Side Memories – in SD (55:55)

Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage – in SD (4:50)

Trailers – in HD (11:50)

 

Presentation:

Amaray Blu-ray Case: BRD x 2 + DVD*

Street Date: November 15, 2011


 

The Movie: 8

OK, Natalie Wood isn’t and couldn’t be mistaken for a Latino, and Richard Beymer is too fey to be taken as a one-time leader of the Jets, and just about everyone is dubbed by someone else’s singing voice at one time or another, and the orchestrations are way too fat (not nearly as wrong-headed as the movie version of A Chorus Line but that’s another story).  Granted all that, Robert Wise, one of the most underrated of American directors (probably because he is not an auteur), pulled off one of the most memorable and historically significant movie musicals of all time. 

 

Wise had enormous help from Jerome Robbins, the award winning choreographer of stage and screen, who had already given us Fancy Free, On the Town, The King and I, and The Pajama Game.  Robbins and Wise share directorial credit for West Side Story, and their collaboration won for both of them an Oscar, the first and only such until 2007 when the Coens won for No Country for Old Men.  Though not the first to do this (an honor that should probably go to On the Town, a dozen years earlier), the first major decision was to shoot some of the action and important dance sequences on location in New York City to add the necessary grit and presence.



 

The Tony-award winning musical – handily the most successful musical adaptation of a Shakespeare play ever - with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Steven Sondheim and screenplay by Ernest Lehman, was already well established.  It only remained to recast (we always scratch our heads when studios do this, but the reason is clear enough) and decide how it will be adapted for the screen – some lyrics are toned down, names are changed and songs reordered – but by and large, the movie is more faithful to the original than others whose substance has been altered appreciably (Cabaret and The Sound of Music for the better; A Chorus Line and Annie for the worse.)


The movie won all sorts of awards, including ten Oscars, especially honoring its supporting actors (Rita Moreno and George Chakiris), who supplied the film’s blood and bite, and all the big artistic awards (art direction, costume design, cinematography), sound, writing and editing.



 

Image: 8/9

Some of the scenes on this Blu-ray are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, painted in deeply saturated primary colors framed by deep blood reds.  Check out Chapter 4, the preamble to the first solo number in the movie: Something’s Comin’ - the scene where Tony and Riff talk about old times and Riff’s special desire to bring Tony back into the fold.  This scene is so boldly colored, it looks both real and unreal at the same time.  A similar effect is achieved with All You Need is the Girl from Gypsy, which looks awfully fine on DVD, but just you wait until it comes out on Blu-ray.

 

That kind of heightened color and contrast pervades the movie, but rarely looks as intense as in this scene.  The Blu-ray is sharp and highly resolved here as well (N.B. the Officer Krupke scene).  In the big rooftop number America, something like this scheme is suggested but it’s not quite as well resolved. Grain is properly apparent in the darker scenes, but they never devolve into noise. Still, the action and performances are so thrilling as to prohibit close examination.



 

There are problems with this disc that cluster around the opening chapter or two: the first substitutes a fade-out and fade-in in place of what should have been nothing more than a dramatic color change between the end of the overture and the emergence of the title under Saul Bass’ graphic design that will shortly become the Manhattan skyline (memories of North by Northwest).  We are told to expect Fox to have fixed this in future pressings.  We shall see.  The other difficulty, which at first I thought was simply due to camera shake, is the shimmering we notice on the edges of buildings during the aerial shots of the New York.

 

But beyond this, the movie looks gorgeous and reminiscent of what we might have seen in the theater of yesteryear.  Blacks are seriously black. Color density is phenomenal, especially considering the lowish bit rate. (I wonder what that means?)  Everywhere but at the beginning there is an absence of those transfer issues that used to plague early high def discs, but which we rarely see any longer.



 

Audio: 7/10

It’s important to keep historical perspective in focus.  This was 1961.  MGM’s classic musicals from the 1940s and 50s, some in black & white, many in color, were not recorded in stereo, let alone with a view toward multichannel surround.  It was not until Fox’s CinemaScope movies, starting in 1953 with How to Marry a Millionaire, that stereophonic sound and four-channel reproduction came into play. The manner of recording and playback should not be confused with Warner’s Cinerama process whose 6-channel surround was not only discrete but was played back via interdependent audio tape, not from the soundtrack imprinted on the film. (Cinerama audio has never been rivaled, in my opinion, though IMAX has the capability for some impressive work.)



 

The mid and later 1950s yielded some pretty dreadful soundscapes, though I seem to recall their having an emotional effect despite them.  I’m thinking first off of The King and I (1956), arguably the best looking musical Fox ever produced, and one that is under-appreciated in general as a movie musical.  Vocals are fat and blurry; orchestrations, even more so. Same with MGM’s High Society (1956). The audio for MGM’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1957) was not nearly as light on its feet as its dancers.  South Pacific (1958) was so inflected with distracting color filtration that it was really hard to pay much attention to the sound in any critical way.  MGM’s 1958 Gigi was a little better, soundwise, but still vocals were still larger than the actors on screen.  On the other hand, Todd-A-O did the musical proud with Oklahoma (1956). Paramount’s 1954 production of White Christmas lacked finesse and couldn’t match the visuals offered by the VistaVision process.  Nor could that studio deliver better than so-so work for Funny Face (1957). Judy Garland may be the little girl with a big voice, but Warner’s 1954 A Star is Born made her so outsized that it seemed to press against the walls of the theater.



 

These are all great musicals but suffered from thick-headed sound engineering in respect to the very stuff that these films were all about: the singing and the music.  It was like once these guys had several channels at their disposal, they felt that the music had to be just that much bigger.  Nuance and lyricism, scale and dynamics, and (most grievously and obviously) attention to the acoustic space of the actors are ignored.


All of which preamble brings me to the Mirisch Corporation’s West Side Story, one of the two or three best musicals of all time – at least on stage.  I admit to have been prejudiced by having seen the first New York touring company’s production in Los Angeles in I think 1958 as an impressionable teenager.  When the musical came to the big screen, I was still too uncritical to notice any glaring failing or, for that matter, that Natalie Wood (all the time) and Rita Moreno (on A Boy Like That but not for America) were both dubbed by other singing voices.  Beymer’s dub seemed more apparent.



 

Wikipedia observes: Leonard Bernstein was displeased with the orchestration of the movie, which was done by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had orchestrated the original Broadway production. That show was orchestrated for roughly 30 musicians; for the movie, United Artists allowed them triple that, including six saxophone parts, eight trumpets, five pianos and five xylophones. Bernstein found it "overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety."

 

Pre-recording and dubbing has long been standard operating procedure for musicals – and it’s easy to see why, especially when the actors are moving through space, forward and back, turning this way and that.  And when the actors are shot on location, as is the case in a few key scenes in West Side Story, pre- and post-production recording is a must.  (Do we really believe Sinatra, Kelly and company are singing “live” in On the Town?)



 

In addition to sync the vocal track with lip movements, the most problematic aspect of this process is matching the singing soundspace to the speaking space either side of the song.  This is where a sensitive touch comes in and where A Star is Born and other failed so miserably.  It’s like they didn’t even notice, let alone care.  More like they don’t understand the basic lessons taught by the father of modern orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov, and his apostles, Prokofiev and Stravinsky: that more can be less.  The more instruments that play the same melodic line, the mellower and less focused it becomes.  At times this is exactly the effect one wants, but in the movie theater, where by default the soundfield is exaggerated by virtue of the many speakers around the room and an equal number of different arrival times at the listener’s ear, it is usually not what is desired – and very rarely in a musical.  The surprise is that Fred Lau’s Sound engineering comes off as well as it does.  On the evidence of the present Blu-ray we can’t really appreciate it, even though reducing the number of speakers at home and correcting for arrival times goes a long way.  More in a moment.



 

MGM’s Blu-ray offers two choices for the primary language: a 4-channel mix in Dolby Digital and the remixed 5.1 in DTS-HD MA.  A comparison the two mixes on Cool, America and the Tonight Quintet shows that they are more similar than they are different, making the question of why no uncompressed format for the original all the more bewildering.  Except that it turns out that the “original” isn’t the 4-channel mix either, but a recently discovered 6-channel mix in Todd-A-O (bless ‘em), making the Oscar in this department more credible.  Fox, for reasons passing understanding, opted to retain the previous home theater mixes - along with certain new fixes (the syncing in the Quintet) and early mistakes (the whistles at the beginning of the film right after the Overture.)  The “new” old 6-channel mix has never made its way into home video.  Another time, perhaps?

 

That said, the difficulties of the one are not undone by the other.  For example, the phrase “Lice! Cockroaches!” is just as much an unintelligible mishmash in the DTS as it is for the Dolby Digital, while the good bits are very nice indeed in DTS: the Tonight Quintet is especially well recreated in surround.




Extras: 9

MGM gives us three modes of getting into the movie in addition to simply watching and listening: Stephen Sondheim’s Song Specific Commentary where he recounts some of his favorite anecdotes; the “Music Machine” a 90 minute video jukebox of the film's musical sequences, either in order or selectively; and “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story” a nineteen minute feature in HD where dance experts involved with the film and not offer their insights about the dance elements of the film.  You can also find this feature as a complete supplement through the menu.

 

On a second Blu-ray disc you’ll find: “A Place for Us: West Side Story's Legacy” which can be a little far fetched at times (as when it references the impact of the film on The Fantastic Mr. Fox), but at other times there is a certain poignancy to the memoirs of Sondheim and some of the actors still with us.  West Side Memories is the single bonus feature ported from the previous DVD edition: Here we find recordings by the major players behind the scenes: Jerome Robbins, Hal Prince, Arthur Laurents, Steven Sondheim, and others taking about their work and working with others on this project.  Fascinating stuff!



 

The standard 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition adds a Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage and an unique set of Trailers you don’t find everyday: Four (count them) different trailers for the feature film – all in HD.  Compare, contrast, enjoy.  * The Limited Edition adds a Tribute CD with covers of the musical’s popular songs, Reproductions of International Posters on Postcards, and a Hardcover Book with an Introduction by Producer Walter Mirisch and plenty of photos.

 

Recommendation: 9

Not a perfect issue by any means, but so very much better than any home video before it.  The preference for a substandard audio mix in place of the original is hard to forgive, and the few errors in the opening scenes take this otherwise sensational disc out of the running for Best of Show.  Recommended all the same, as most people won’t much notice the problems.



 

 

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

November 13, 2011



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