‘West Side Story’ comes to American Region free Blu-ray with a very good looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer, framed in the widescreen 2.20:1 aspect ratio - which suggests the use of a 70mm source. The image has the kind of density and ‘chunkiness’ I’d normally associate with a 70mm print, as well as the associated sharpness that refrains from taking on a clinical appearance. It’s not that the picture is soft by any means, it just looks like film.
We get an image with rich, saturated colours - repleat with warm skin tones and the whole colour design is a pleasure to view, conveying a feeling of heat. There’s much to admire here as Bernardo’s striking bright red shirt jumps out from the drab grey city landscape with many shots being reminiscent of the work of some modern American painters. Contrast is healthy throughout with deep, solid blacks in the shadows and night scenes. Occasionally, contrast is ramped up in individual shots - which upon closer inspection tend to be dupe sections in the film. The image is very filmic with only a very fine hint of grain visible – but you really have to look for it.
Viewed on a 50 inch Plasma panel, the Blu-ray looked very good but not amazing – and this surprised me. Unlike many restored older movies, it didn’t look like a film that was made just yesterday. It looked like a film of its time. This comment should not be mistaken for a criticism of the condition of the source or lack of clean up. Indeed, there is no dirt, dust, scratching or other print damage to ruin the show.
I’d heard that a mistake had occurred with the transfer on the final transition from the opening sequence to the first ‘live action’ shot. A graphic using a pattern of vertical lines is supposed to dissolve into the City skyline. It was reported that instead of a dissolve, a fade down followed by a fade up had occurred- which would have ruined the effect. Now, either I’ve got a corrected copy (as Fox were promising to send them out to people who complained) or the fact that I’ve never seen the film before means I have no memory to compare it with – but it looks fine to me. I did notice some jitter during the aerial shots of New York and you can see a slight shimmer (almost a moiré) on the wire fence surrounding the yard where the two gangs meet at first. It’s really not that much of a distraction and it didn’t pull me out of the movie.
Maybe my expectations were a bit too high as when I heard ‘West Side Story’ was coming to Blu. I thought “I bet that’ll look fantastic.” To sum it up I’d say it looks very good indeed, but a little short of fantastic.
While there may be some niggles with regard to the image, there were no such doubts about the quality of the audio. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix sounds truly excellent and makes the musical numbers come alive with an exuberance and vitality that allows the Sondheim/Bernstein classics to shine. The vocals and instruments are well placed within the enveloping sound field. There’s also enough bass to add the necessary oomph to the dance routines. The orchestra soars in the main stereo pair during the ‘Tonight’ duet between Natalie Wood (actually Marni Nixon) and Richard Beymer. Unlike on a previous DVD release, there’s no sound synch problem during this number.
A very impressive use of directionality is heard in the dialogue, particularly during the sequences where the gangs are all together. The wide front soundstage is used to great effect in the placing of discrete voices as individual gang members chip in their tuppence worth (or should that be 25 cents?) to the conversation.
As you’d expect, there is no age related hiss, snap, crackle or pop to offend the ears here. I have no doubt, however, that those who claim to have the hearing of a cat will find points to argue over.
Any lover of movie musicals should enjoy this splendid soundtrack.
The version reviewed was the American Region free 3 disc set. Blu-ray disc 1 contains the movie and some extras, Disc 2 contains the Special Features and Disc 3 is a DVD version of the movie.
Pow! The Dances of 'West Side Story' (HD, 19 mins) - Here, the many excellent dance sequences are picked over by Robert Relyea, Assistant Director of ‘West Side Story’, Jamie Bernstein (Leonard’s daughter), Yvonne Wilder (Consuolo in the movie), Debbie Allen and Mikhail Baryshnikov. These video segments can be viewed either as the movie plays or separately.
Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim. - Mr Sondheim beats himself up over some of his lyrics for 'West Side Story', and much of what he says is included in the accompanying featurettes.
Music Machine (HD, 85 mins) – A great way to access each song sequence individually in case you don’t want to watch the whole movie again.
A Place for Us: 'West Side Story' s Legacy (HD, 30 mins) - We hear from Stephen Sondheim and some of the cast as they share their memories and tell us how it affected their careers. It also looks at the cultural impact the film has had since its release.
West Side Memories (SD, 56 mins) - This is a much older doco which is nonetheless interesting as it includes interviews with Jerome Robbins, original story writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim amongst others. We also get to hear of the issues that arose between Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise during the production.
Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage (SD, 5 mins) – Just as it says on the tin, folks.
Trailers (HD, 12 mins) - The quality of the trailers (Boy, do they look pale) simply underlines just how good the new transfer of the feature actually is. There’s also footage of the Premiere here too.
The multi-Oscar winning ‘West Side Story’ leaps on to American Region free Blu-ray with a very good looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, framed in the widescreen 2.20:1 aspect ratio. Strong, saturated colours and healthy levels of contrast pervade this digitally restored release that, despite minor niggles, is a pleasure to behold.
The DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround audio does a fine job of bringing the musical numbers to enveloping life, while a wide front sound stage is used to discretely place voices in group shots.
A brace of featurettes provide us with some interesting background on the film’s production and lyricist Stephen Sondheim self critically talks us through his work.
As a film, it’s a movie musical with a message full of great performances from the cast including Natalie Wood & Richard Beymer – and then there are those memorable songs.
For lovers of movie musicals and those new to the genre. Just enjoy the movie!
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