West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray (2011) Review

Very few productions can be considered timeless. West Side Story is one of them. It’s enough that this wonderful tale involves the requisite cathartic story conventions such as unmitigated hatred, bigotry, gang warfare and a love powerful enough to transcend them all. But West Side Story takes its presentation into the stratosphere with beautiful music, poignant lyrics and evocative dances that reach out to touch every viewer’s soul. All of these elements and more coalesce into something magical that is immune to time and space, creating one of the purest connections art can have with the individual. While admirers of the film have been able to own it for home viewing in the past, West Side Story is now available on Blu-ray remastered in stunning 1080p high-definition and 7.1 audio, offering quite possibly an even more satisfying experience than was available to original audiences in 1961.

For newcomers, West Side Story is a stage musical that was created in 1957 and later adapted to film four years later. It is the creation of four men who are highly regarded in musical theater: Arthur Laurents (book), Jerome Robbins (choreography), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). The story is adapted from William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet to fit the inner city of 1950’s New York. The warring families have been replaced by neighborhood gangs the Jets – mostly of Eastern European descent – and the Sharks – immigrants from Puerto Rico. The star-crossed lovers are Tony (Richard Beymar), who is the former leader of the Jets, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the younger sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris), the leader of the Sharks. When Tony and Maria meet at a local dance, they fall in love, but don’t realize just how deep their feelings run, how far it will take them or what perils they will have to brave to keep it alive.

The 1961 film won 10 Academy Awards and is still cherished to this day, so one more review of the original work won’t really matter. The 50th Anniversary Edition of West Side Story on Blu-ray, however, definitely deserves some poring over. This three-disc set is quite possibly the most comprehensive collection of West Side Story content available in one place.

Disc 1 is a Blu-ray disc that contains the feature presentation remastered in 1080p high-definition and 7.1 DTS-HD sound. It also offers special features, like song-specific commentary by Stephen Sondheim and a featurette about the dance choreography, featuring documentary-style interviews with prominent figures like Rita Moreno and Adam Shankman. A “music machine” feature allows viewers to turn their Blu-ray player into a jukebox, playing only the scenes with music.

Disc 2 is a Blu-ray disc that contains even more special features, including two lengthy documentary features. The first is A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy which offers interviews with notable people related to the musical, like Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, and a number of choreographers and dancers, like Debbie Allen. The second is West Side Memories from 2003, which provides short interviews with the cast, including Richard Beymar, Russ Tamblyn and more. Viewers will also get to see the different trailers for the film as well as storyboard comparisons.

Disc 3 is a DVD that contains the feature presentation remastered in standard definition and also offers the “music machine” functionality found on the Blu-ray.

West Side Story remastered on Blu-ray is absolutely stunning, especially when viewed on a high-definition television with a high refresh rate. The footage is amazingly clear and viewers will no doubt pick up little details they may have never seen before. More importantly, the vivid color palette truly pops in this version, enveloping viewers in the art direction in ways previous versions did not. The visuals are only half of what makes West Side Story so amazing, of course; the other half is the sound, and it is wonderful. The power of Blu-ray is evident here in 7.1 DTS-HD audio, making every syllable and note crisp and audible. Dialogue that may not have been clear before is perfectly intelligible, and every instrument caresses the ears. The remastered version on DVD in standard definition also looks and sounds great, but is easily the inferior version. The West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray is the only way to truly enjoy this film.

The movie alone makes this collection well worth the purchase, but the high-quality special features truly add incalculable value to this set. Lovers of the film will enjoy seeing some of the dancers and actors in their older age reminiscing about their involvement. Listening to Stephen Sondheim give insight into the songs of West Side Story is like a micro class in lyric writing. Most enjoyable is the rare footage of Natalie Wood singing her part undubbed as well as the behind-the-scenes shots of the cast performing rain dances to delay the production. There’s so much rich content to consume it’s almost overwhelming, but it’s so delicious viewers will probably devour it in one sitting.

West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray is a must-have for any admirer of the film. Not only does it offer the very best version of the film, but it provides the wonderful context and history of the production. Own it to relive the magic of West Side Story or to share it with a whole new generation; it’s one of the best purchases any film-lover can make.