****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris
screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins
directed by Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
by Walter Chaw With apologies to Frank Zappa, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's West Side Story is dancing about the tumultuous social architecture of Manhattan's west side in the 1950s--a picture as political as it is ephemeral and, consequently, as timeless as it is exhilarating. It is one of those rare pictures that feels like the first time I've seen it every time I see it--renewing itself endlessly through its rare energy and meticulously choreographed nihilism. That it doesn't hold together particularly well as a drama, much of the emotional power of its doomed love affair sapped by Richard Beymer's amazingly bad performance as lead Tony, is secondary to the enduring effectiveness of the Leonard Bernstein score (with Sondheim's amazingly current lyrics and Saul Chapin's bright orchestration); Jerome Robbins's ebullient dance sequences; Rita Moreno and George Chakiris; and the revelatory location work and lighting design.
Self-consciously based upon Shakespeare's tragedy of star-crossed teens in fair Verona, West Side Story follows the violent emptiness of the inevitably colliding orbits of Anglo street gang The Jets (led by tough-talking Riff (an excellent Russ Tamblyn, who, like Beymer, went on to star in David Lynch's TV series "Twin Peaks")) and their Puerto Rican counterpart, The Sharks (led by Bernardo (Chakiris)). After an aesthetically fascinating opening where the gangs stalk through the asphalt boroughs of Gotham, the picture settles into an examination of peacenik ex-banger Tony (Beymer) and sweatshop worker (and Bernardo's sister) Maria (Natalie Wood) as they meet at a dance and fall madly in love. Disapproved of by both sides, Maria and Tony meet in secret until a fateful night when the meaningless difficulty of their circumstance comes to a head. Rita Moreno as Maria's confidante Anita steals the show from an overly cautious Wood.
Reorganized from the stage play and expanded narratively by master screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest is another Lehman and another work influenced at least tangentially by Shakespeare--"I am but mad north-north-west" (Hamlet II.2)), West Side Story arguably works better on the big screen. Besides cannily shifting the "Cool" piece with the "Officer Krupke" (a vital transition that some smaller stage productions have adopted), the key "America" sequence has been expanded from an all-girl to a mixed ensemble with additional lyrics and a more lively and complicated blocking structure. In that expansion, the dance sequence "Mambo" is paralleled in the film's rooftop race deconstruction that itself echoes, of course, Maria's bittersweet missed-rendezvous on the night of Nardo's murder. Lyrically, "America" is home to some of Sondheim's tightest work in the original incarnation but particularly in its re-incarnation on celluloid. Unique to the film:
ANITA: Lots of new housing with more space
BERNARDO: Lots of doors slamming in our face
ANITA: I'll get a terrace apartment
BERNARDO: Better get rid of your accent
BERNARDO: I think I'll go back to San Juan
ANITA: I know what boat you can get on
BERNARDO: Everyone there will give big cheers
ANITA: Everyone there will have moved here
More than a witty indictment of race in the United States (to this day, I daresay), the lyrics provide for Moreno and Chakiris the means for further character development--the sort of narrative agility that Bob Fosse freed from the traditional form almost exactly a decade later with the film version of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret finds its seed planted subtly here. It's that understanding of the essential difference between the stage and the cinema that fuels West Side Story, and though the film is unmistakably bound to an extent to its theatrical roots, it uses location and set in a way that's deceptively agile and, ultimately, sociologically pithy. Timeless and edged by melancholy (not so much for the central love story, which can grate, but for its identification of racial and class struggle as based in pride and thus probably intractably entrenched), West Side Story endures as a piece that preserves the immediacy of stage with the otherness of film: technically faultless and a surprisingly pointed introduction to the "medium cool" films of the 1960s.
Released in a new 2-disc Special Edition by MGM in a period where the big budget movie musical is finding something of a renaissance with Moulin Rouge! (remembering director Baz Luhrmann's own William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet) and 2002's Chicago, West Side Story has never looked better at home. Preserved in its original SuperPanavision70 aspect ratio (MGM/UA advertises it at about 2.20:1, though it doesn't look quite as wide on a non-anamorphic television) the 16x9-enhanced video transfer is vibrant and sharp. A slight waver is noticeable against certain chain-link backgrounds, but it's generally not distracting. Given the age of the film, the quality of the image is amazing though, arguably, the forced artificiality of its presentation lends to a greater aesthetic longevity. The original multi-track audio has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 for this release, and while the rear channels don't get much work, the strength and depth of the musical numbers is ear-popping--if they sound a little brash, it's still an improvement on earlier incarnations (including a previous MGM DVD release).
Considering that the Special Edition is spread over two discs, one would expect a greater number of extras, but no matter. With the first disc devoted to the film (and the option to view the original theatrical intermission: two minutes of light overture over a coloured background), the second features a new documentary: the fifty-six minute West Side Memories. The docu is a shrine, essentially, but does go into some detail of perfectionist taskmaster Robbins's eventual dismissal from the film (his rehearsal regimen so stringent that it often only ended with collapse or injury) as well as Wood's disappointment that she was eventually dubbed. (Original tracks of Wood singing, however, while truer to the character's innocence perhaps, betray the actress as a talented amateur who's occasionally flat.) The fact that the rest of the cast was also dubbed for the film was apparently of little comfort.
Rita Moreno, still fabulous, offers lively commentary, as do Sondheim, Wise, Lehman, and the eternally irritating Beymer. Three photo galleries (behind the scenes, production design, storyboard), a set of trailers (an animated one of the poster art set to score from the original release--looking a great deal like chromosomes and DNA, oddly enough), the intermission image and music, and a four-minute "Storyboard-to-Film Comparison" montage provide the bulk of disc two's goodies. Trailers for Some Like It Hot, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Last Waltz join MGM's "Great Movies" trailer as well as a ten-photo gallery of "More Great MGM Releases" sully in rounding out the disc.
Accompanying the two discs in a handsome red case is a "Scrapbook"--a bound volume featuring an introductory essay by Lehman concerning the process of adaptation and how he came to be involved in the project, Lehman's script for the film, and the original lobby brochure and contemporary reviews for the film. Extremely nice-looking with a healthy weight, the set is a treasure for devotees of the film and educational despite its relative sparseness for the serious student. Originally published: March 23, 2003.