There are times when you’re made to feel guilty in life, such as when others rave about a movie musical that was released way back in 1961 and you have no idea what they’re gibbering on about. It’s even worse when they use the word ‘iconic’ in the same sentence as the film’s title. So I’m going to come clean. Until very recently, I’d never actually seen ‘West Side Story’. I hang my head in shame, but the situation has now been rectified thanks to the movie’s release on American Region free Blu-ray. Now I’ve had a chance to watch this winner of 10 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Colour photography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Sound & Best Score. Phew, what a relief!
In actual fact, the reason I hadn’t seen it before was because I refused to watch a highly regarded widescreen movie in a Pan and Scan version on TV. I’m now glad that I did save the experience for the opportunity to see it both in High Def and widescreen in the original 2.20:1 aspect ratio.
While it’s patently obvious that the movie was based on a stage musical, it’s refreshing to see that Director Robert Wise chose to shoot it on location in New York rather than in the more controllable and safe environment of a Hollywood studio. This adds a whole extra gritty dimension to film.
So, we have an updated version of the Romeo and Juliet story, set in New York with amazingly energetic dance sequences choreographed by Jerome Robbins and a superb bunch of songs from the pens of Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim. Great tunes with clever lyrics to match. Everyone must have heard ‘Maria’, ‘Tonight’, ‘America’, ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘There’s a Place for Us’ as they have become musical standards over the last 50 years.
I remember being hugely impressed when Leonard Bernstein recorded a new album of the musical numbers back in the late 80’s. So now to have heard the original movie versions is like a History lesson – and a very good one too. It also occurred to me that ‘West Side Story’ must have greatly influenced the look of so many movies including ‘Grease’ as the similarities between the gangs just can’t be ignored. Oh, and the fact that they’re both set in the 1950s helps too.
The cast of ‘West Side Story’ bring added life to the tale with powerful performances from Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony – the two star crossed lovers. I have to be honest though. This love at first sight thing just seems a bit too sudden in the movie. I mean to say, Tony catches sight of Maria and within minutes the poor sap is singing songs about her. I’m sure I’m just old and cynical – or maybe the world has changed in the last 50 years but it just seems a bit corny these days.
‘West Side Story’ is also somewhat different from other entries in the genre as most other musicals end on a happy note. Think of another Robert Wise picture ‘The Sound of Music’ or even ‘South Pacific’ or ‘Oklahoma’. They tend to have more of a feel good factor about them. With ‘West Side Story’ we have to deal with gang warfare and a couple of deaths before it’s done. Still, the songs are real crackers.
It was probably one of the earliest musicals with a message, promoting anti-violence and encouraging people of different nationalities to get along together. It’s a movie with a slightly dangerous edge due to the threat of violence erupting between the two rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Not only that, but we feel the building tension created by the forbidden love between Tony and Maria and a feeling of dread ensues.
Interestingly, the two leading players (Ms Wood and Mr Beymer) both had their singing voices dubbed for the movie, such was the focus on getting people who could inhabit the roles. Jimmy Bryant lent his singing talents to Richard Beymer while Natalie Wood was dubbed by the well known singer Marni Nixon, who also provided the singing voice for Deborah Kerr in ‘The King & I’ and Audrey Hepburn in ‘My Fair Lady’. Anyone who wonders what this lady actually looks like needs to watch out for Sister Sophia in the movie version of ‘The Sound of Music’.
Despite the strong performances of the two leads, it was actually Rita Moreno and George Chakiris who picked up the statuettes in the acting stakes for Best Supporting roles at the 1961 Oscars.
The movie would not be what it is without the strikingly impactful photography of Daniel L. Fapp that pulls the audience into the story due to its startling visual appeal. The same compliment can be applied to the production design by Boris Leven.
The clever opening graphic that melts into the New York landscape is a creative device reminiscent of Hitchcock’s title sequence for ‘North by Northwest’. The end title sequence where cast and crew names are almost hidden among the graffiti on urban structures sustains the feel of the piece until the final frame. Viewing ‘West Side Story’ in its digitally restored High Definition edition made me realise that waiting to see it in this form was well worth while. While there may be some who will focus their attention on technical issues (discussed in the Picture quality section of this review), those of us who’d rather take into account the whole movie experience can enjoy it for the stunning piece of work that it is. This will be a treat for fans of movie musicals and newbies alike.
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