by Pat Cerasaro
WEST SIDE STORY is definitely back in a big way - in the last two weeks alone it has had its very own tribute episode on GLEE featuring four of the show’s most famous songs, and, also, Fathom re-released the new HD remastering of the film in movie theaters nationwide for a one-night-only showing - so, given its 50th anniversary, the time has definitely come to pay tribute to one of the finest American movie musicals ever manufactured, which itself was based on one of the most innovative, controversial and progressive Broadway shows in history. From “A Boy Like That” to “Tonight” to “Somewhere” and beyond, this is a score that has enraptured two or three entire generations - with very, very good reason; these songs are simply musical and lyrical magic. Truly, this is as good as musical theatre gets, and, furthermore, the 1960 film version by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise is just as good. The combination of the two? Transcendent. No, never before has WEST SIDE STORY presented the power, potency, prescience and put forth the plosive overall “pow!” to the system - heart, mind and body - than it does, here, now, on the absolutely sensational new 3-disc 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition, which will be released on Tuesday. I was lucky enough to get a copy early and I was simply blown away in every single imaginable way. A red, hot and blue all-American movie masterpiece given its full, magnificent, ecstatic due on Blu-ray. Be prepared to be blown away. Bam!
A cinematic landmark only comes along once or twice a decade, so the one-two punch that Robert Wise enacted in the early 1960s with the edgy, tense and operatic WEST SIDE STORY in late 1960/early 1961, alongside the warm, fuzzy and sweet THE SOUND OF MUSIC in 1965 - both therefore released within four short years of each other - is an unprecedented feat by any director; at least insofar as movie musical history is concerned. Sure, Vincente Minnelli managed to do AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and GIGI inside an even shorter timeframe, but those films are not quite the strikingly dissimilar entities that WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC undoubtedly are. Honestly, one could not name two more different shows in their style, themes, characters and conclusions - and one would especially not find a more unlikely combination in that particular era. Yet, Wise wrought the perfect convergence of sweetness, sincerity and familial warmth from the source material in the rightly warmly-regarded THE SOUND OF MUSIC in much the same way that he weaved in the gritty, dirty, outright mean and nasty underbelly of the street kids at the center of WEST SIDE STORY - all the while maintaining the humanity and reality of the characters and circumstances at all times. No small feat - to say the very least. Both are beloved - but only one is the best of the best. So, just how well does WEST SIDE STORY on Blu-ray stack up next to last Christmas’s Broadway baby Blu-ray must-own, THE SOUND OF MUSIC? It somehow manages to leap even above that exceedingly high standard set forth by that Rodgers & Hammerstein gem on expertly-rendered Blu-ray and jetee in a Jerome Robbins flourish high above it; first to the finish line. Yes, this is the very best that Blu-ray has to offer and WEST SIDE STORY is one of the greatest films ever produced - thus, it is a marriage made in heaven.
Speaking of marriage, the story at the center of WEST SIDE STORY comes, of course, from the Shakespearean tragedy of ROMEO & JULIET and it is in its precise and quite genius reworking of the events of that tale - as well as its new rendering of the ways in which a story can be told; whether that be through dance, dialogue, song or a mixture of all three - that WEST SIDE STORY ultimately derives its greatest power. Nothing sings better than doomed teenage lovers’ passionate emotions, does it? Particularly leading up to the Big Night - or, as the GLEE WEST SIDE STORY tribute last Tuesday was so ingeniously titled (and the content followed suit), “The First Time”. WEST SIDE STORY is, at its heart, a story about sex - sexual awakening; sexual repression; sexual expression; sexual release; sexual politics; and, most of all, teenage sexuality at its most fervent, fiery and ferocious and how that manifests in life and in society. Is Bernardo not more menacing and fearsome because of his hot and heavy relationship with Anita and how that paints him - and, most of all, how it sets a bit more fire to his flighty feet? Does Tony not loose a little of his street cred amongst the Jets (and Sharks) by no longer being the gallivanting street thug with a dumb moll on his leather jacketed arm? Is Maria not so lovable and empathetic because she is so naïve, innocent and obviously virginal? Sex has all and everything to do with nearly every facet of WEST SIDE STORY and that comes dripping through in droplets, evermore accumulating and forming a stream into a river into an ocean of emotion and beyond - first, through the terse Arthur Laurents dialogue; then, flowing further forth in Sondheim’s flowery and always apt (despite what he might tell you) lyrics; the stream building steam and gushing in and coursing through with the delicate dances by Robbins (and Peter Gennaro); and, finally, the sonic equivalent of Niagra Falls in Bernstein’s tremendous, unparalleled masterpiece of a music score. WEST SIDE STORY is an ocean of dreams - some made; some realized; some shattered; some just beginning to brew - made all the more vivid, alive and alluring on the new Blu-ray.
To say the image pops or that the sound delivers a “pow!” would be doing a disservice to the awe-inspiring technical work that has been done on this HD remastering of the fifty-year-old film. Looking as WEST SIDE STORY does on its new Blu-ray edition, the film could have been shot five years ago, not fifty. It’s that clear. It’s that detailed. It’s that good - no, not good; great. From the opening overture over the artistic depiction of New York City and then New York circa-1960 itself, to the near-3D of the psychedelic effects at the Dance At The Gym all the way to the reverberations of the bells signaling the final strains of the succulent score after Maria's final words - this is a sensory experience to the nth. Every single element is there to see and hear and feel and almost touch - it's absurdly, awesomely crystal clear. You really can feel the love, the joy, the pain, the passion and - most of all and most importantly - the artistry of it all; as was simply never quite possible before, at least outside of an actual 70 mm cinema experience. And, as if the perfection of the visual presentation - yes, I said perfection - was not enough, there is also the new 7.1 DTS-HD audio track, assembled from the original master tapes created from the soundtrack sessions. Now, I know that even the most vocal and vociferous of home entertainment fans may not have upgraded to a 7.1 system yet - or even a 5.1; as the case may be - but, if you ever needed more reason than to hear the greatest musical theatre score of all time - written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, no less - in its most rapturous rendering to date - as heard here, now, on this new Blu-ray edition - well, now you have it. Actually, make that two reasons. Indeed, never has a remastering of a catalog title on Blu-ray made full use of the format in quite this way - after all, how could it? What movie musical is better than WEST SIDE STORY, anyway? - and made the colors jump off the screen, the sounds envelope and the entire experience enthrall as much as WEST SIDE STORY on Blu-ray does. From your first cigarette to your last dying day, this is the movie musical to own on disc for the ages out of them all. Hyperbole? Well, find out for yourself on Tuesday.
Plus, as if all of this praise was not enough to entice you to be first in line (digitally, physically or otherwise) to pick up WEST SIDE STORY on Blu-ray, Stephen Sondheim himself commits a brief song-specific commentary with more fascinating factoids, obscure observations and ingenious insights than a hundred commentaries of its kind, ten times its length, have managed to do - and I have listened to nearly a thousand in my lifetime. Sondheim shares some rare out-of-town version information and cut-song remembrances that even the most obsessed theatre fan may never have heard before - or, in my case, about seven such revelations (many things not even in his FINISHING THE HAT chapter on the creation of the show; nor in LOOK, I MADE A HAT, the sequel out later this month, which I have just read and devoured) - and I shall not spoil the surprises by revealing them here. The sensational feature-length documentary, featurettes and other supplements from the previous special edition DVD have been ported over to the 3-disc set edition of this new 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release (and a new dance-centric In-Movie Mode added) and a super-special deluxe edition - complete with a collectable book, other memorabilia and a fancy keep case - is also available if you are so inclinded. Whichever version of the Blu you choose, never has there been a better reason to add WEST SIDE STORY to your home video collection - or, in my case, add it for the umpteenth time - than with this simply spectacular new Blu-ray blast of Broadway brilliance by way of Hollywood at the height of its powers that is WEST SIDE STORY on Blu-ray.
Birth to earth; womb to tomb; sperm to worm - this is the WEST SIDE STORY to own forever. Pow!