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Blu-ray Review West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review (1 Viewer)

Cameron Yee

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MGM Studios brings one of the finest screen musicals ever made to Blu-ray, but with disappointing results. Even with the engrossing quality of the film itself, a great audio presentation, and a solid set of special features, problems with the video transfer are severe enough that many will want to give the release a pass.


West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition
Release Date: November 15, 2011
Studio: MGM Studios
Packaging/Materials: Three-disc Blu-ray case with slipcover
Year: 1961
Rating: NR
Running Time: 2:33:43
MSRP: $29.99

  THE FEATURE SPECIAL FEATURES
Video 1080p high definition 16x9 2.20:1 High and standard definition
Audio DTS-HD Master Audio: English 7.1 / Dolby Digital: English 4.0, Spanish 5.1 / DTS: French 5.1, German 5.1 Various
Subtitles English SDH, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, German, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Chinese, Danish Various


The Feature: 5/5
Describing “West Side Story” as an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” is like saying crème brûlée is a kind of custard - while the description may be true, it doesn’t do it any justice. That’s not a knock against Shakespeare’s archetypal, star-crossed lovers tale, since without it “West Side Story” wouldn’t have much of a foundation. But it’s plain to see that everything built atop that foundation - its moving musical themes by Leonard Bernstein, poignant song lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and dynamic dance choreography by Jerome Robbins - is what makes “West Side Story” so exceptional. Having the story, written by Arthur Laurents, set in the modern age with racial tensions being the source of friction between the opposing “families” also gives the story a relevance that, sadly, even 50 years hasn’t been able to diminish.


It’s surprising then that initial reaction to the stage musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1957 under Robbins’ direction, was mixed. Though it went on to have a successful Broadway run, American tour, and a number of international revivals and productions, it wasn’t until 1961’s film incarnation, directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, that it began to get the widespread attention it deserved. Imbued with an urban style and edge that was unusual for film musicals at that time, it went on to win 10 Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Picture. Natalie Woods’ performance as Maria also proves to be one of the film’s highlights, though supporting turns by Richard Beymer as Tony, Russ Tamblyn as Riff, Rita Moreno as Anita, and George Chakiris as Bernardo are no less persuasive. With such all around excellence, it’s no stretch to say “West Side Story” is one of the top five screen musicals ever made. However, if some were to give it the top spot, I doubt there would be many complaints.


Video Quality: 3/5
A few weeks ago, rumors started circulating about a problem in the film’s Overture. Film restorationist Robert Harris was able to confirm the problem on the UK Blu-ray release - what amounts to an incorrect transition (a fade out / in instead of a dissolve) around the 4:37 mark. Having now received the North American release, I can confirm the mistake remains, though rumor is Fox / MGM will correct the problem and replace the disc for those who want it. No official word yet on such an exchange program though.


Perhaps more disappointing then the transition mistake, however, was Harris’s evaluation of the rest of the transfer, treatment that falls short of what a film like “West Side Story” deserves. Though I can’t say I was able to notice some of the more tolerable issues Harris described (e.g. the jitter in the helicopter aerials), problems with the effects going into the dance hall scene, and a good 90 seconds of the dance performance (specifically "Blue"), are quite obvious and downright painful to watch. There aren’t issues to that degree in the rest of the film, but there’s a lack of consistency between shots through its entirety, looking quite pleasing (e.g. filmlike) at times but most of the time looking overly contrasty and sharp (those sensitive to edge haloing will be howling). Color is certainly the transfer’s strongest suit, looking especially great in the “America” musical number, but the lack of consistency in other areas tends to disrupt one’s enjoyment overall. If the film itself weren’t so engrossing, no doubt the image problems would stand out even more, but even the greatest fans will likely have trouble overlooking the less-than-perfect presentation of their favorite film.


Audio Quality: 4/5
Dialogue in the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is consistently clear and intelligible, though seems to be a touch uneven in volume, sometimes sounding pulled back. The rest of the channels sound nicely balanced however, providing consistent, if somewhat light, support for the jazz and Latin-infused musical numbers. Overall the track features pleasing depth, detail and range, with “Dance at the Gym,” “America,” and “Cool” being just a few of the notable highlights. The overall mix does seem to lean more toward the front sound stage, but ultimately I can’t say whether the placement should have been shifted toward the back more than it is.

Special Features: 3.5/5
While the special features would never be called exhaustive, they do provide a thorough history of the production and solid analysis of the screen musical's significance. Archival materials and a DVD copy round out the package, though the latter also includes the Overture's fade-in/fade out gaffe.

[Disc One]

Pow! The Dances of West Side Story (19:12, HD): Dance professionals and musical theater experts give their impressions and analysis of seven of the film's dance sequences. The featurettes can be viewed along with the feature or on their own in the Extras section.

Song-Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim (19:41, HD): Lyricist Sondheim offers his thoughts and recollections on 14 of the film's musical sequences. His comments don't run the full length of, and sometimes don't have obvious connections to, the numbers they're associated with, but nevertheless he offers some interesting tidbits about collaborating on the iconic pieces. He can also be quite candid about his work, as with "I Feel Pretty," which he admits contains words that Maria probably would never use.

Music Machine (1:25:07, HD): For those who just want to cut to the chase and watch the film's musical sequences alone. Consists of 20 chapters from the Overture to the End Credits.

[Disc Two]

A Place for Us: West Side Story's Legacy (29:28, HD): Examines what set "West Side Story" apart from other musicals and the film's enduring influence on pop culture, musical theater and cinema. Includes interviews with various dance and theater professionals, critics, and former cast members.

West Side Memories (55:55, SD): Produced in 2003, the documentary provides a detailed history of the "West Side Story" film production, highlighting things like the choreography, vocal dubbing, song lyrics, cinematography, production design, and on-set relationships and dynamics.

Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage (4:50, HD): Still images from the storyboards are cut together with final filmed sequences and set to orchestral pieces from the musical.

Trailers

  • Original Theatrical Trailer (3:57, HD)
  • Original Issue Trailer (3:54, HD)
  • Reissue Trailer (3:58, HD)
  • Animated Trailer (2:04, SD)


[Disc Three]

DVD: Includes the feature in standard definition 2.20:1 anamorphic video and 448 kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English), and Dolby Digital mono (Spanish and French). Subtitles options are English SDH and Spanish. The sole extra is the 20-chapter "Music Machine" feature.

Recap
The Feature: 5/5
Video Quality: 3/5
Audio Quality: 4/5
Special Features: 3.5/5
Overall Score (not an average): 3/5

Even if Fox sets up an exchange program to address the transition mistake in the film’s Overture, the other issues with the transfer will likely go unaddressed. Consequently, it’s hard to recommend “West Side Story” for purchase until the transfer is revisited in full. While some might argue the image is “good enough” - especially for the general viewing public - why should the bar be set so low for a film that has achieved so much? Ultimately, it comes down to how a film like this - and ultimately its creators - should be treated. As things are, the Blu-ray release for “West Side Story” is not good enough and earns a "pass."

 
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WilliamMcK

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Cameron Yee said:
There aren’t issues to that degree in the rest of the film, but there’s a lack of consistency between shots through its entirety, looking quite pleasing (e.g. filmlike) at times but most of the time looking overly contrasty and sharp (those sensitive to edge haloing will be howling).
Ugh! I saw the halo-ing in the Fathom screening on Wednesday night. I assumed it was due to a lower resolution digital presentation than has become the norm. Now it sounds like something that occurred during the "restoration." I was counting on it not being problematic when reduced to TV (even HDTV) size. After reading the intial reports on the UK disc, I canceled my pre-order; but then in a weak moment I placed it again -- and unfortunately I just got confirmation that it has been shipped (along with MY FAIR LADY). I wish all movies were released by Criterion!
 

Charles Smith

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I was on the fence about this one, but I've decided: NO SALE. Not until the problems (plural) have been corrected and the disc reissued. It's only one of my favorite films, but as with My Fair Lady, I can -- and will -- stick with what I already have, and wait for a proper and respectful release.
 

Ronald Epstein

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You know, when Fox/MGM does things right I am the first

to offer the highest praise for their efforts.


But how can one of the greatest musicals of all time -- a

Best Picture of 1961 -- be given such neglected treatment?


When this set was announced, I figured that since this was

coming out of the Fox camp that West Side Story would
look tremendous. From the reviews I have been reading,
it seems the most minimal of care has been given to a product

that is being promoted with such enormous effort (aka deluxe

boxed set).


I can't buy something like this. This film might be corrected

in future pressings as far as the fade-out in the beginning, but

what about the lack of consistency in the video? How does

stuff like this happen when dealing with a product of this

magnitude?
 

Robert Harris

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Originally Posted by Ronald Epstein

You know, when Fox/MGM does things right I am the first

to offer the highest praise for their efforts.


But how can one of the greatest musicals of all time -- a

Best Picture of 1961 -- be given such neglected treatment?


When this set was announced, I figured that since this was

coming out of the Fox camp that West Side Story would
look tremendous. From the reviews I have been reading,
it seems the most minimal of care has been given to a product

that is being promoted with such enormous effort (aka deluxe

boxed set).


I can't buy something like this. This film might be corrected

in future pressings as far as the fade-out in the beginning, but

what about the lack of consistency in the video? How does

stuff like this happen when dealing with a product of this

magnitude?
Someone doing QC who knows nothing about film or its history, while those above treat great cinema as

a disposable product.


RAH
 
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Techman707

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After watching this Blu-ray, I see that it's the same tranfer that ran on cable TV months ago with the same title error. It reminds me of the SD tranfer of "Auntie Mame" where they took all the "special disolves" around faces and cut them short, only they were were supposed to be held and not cut short. Can't they at least watch the film before they butcher it?
 

Tina_H_V

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Thanks for the heads-up, guys. I had this one on my XMAS Wish List, but after reading this, I will pass for now.
 

marsnkc

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The news just gets worse! Though understandabley anathema to some people, I think I could have lived with the overture and dupe problems (though they could be worse than I imagine them to be!), even if a fix hadn't been announced. The thing I can't abide is edge enhancement, an issue I don't remember reading anywhere else. Highly unlikely, but is there a chance that the UK edition might not be thus blighted?
 

Marc Martin

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marsnkc said:
The news just gets worse! Though understandabley anathema to some people, I think I could have lived with the overture and dupe problems (though they could be worse than I imagine them to be!), even if a fix hadn't been announced. The thing I can't abide is edge enhancement, an issue I don't remember reading anywhere else. Highly unlikely, but is there a chance that the UK edition might not be thus blighted?
The UK Blu-ray has edge enhancement "ringing" on some scenes, so I suspect it's the same as the US Blu-ray.
 

Brian Sharp

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Got this reply from Fox today. Not sure if it means they are out of stock or are coming up with a corrected disc. "In regards to your email below, unfortunately 20th Century Fox is not in a position to comment on the specific issues, however if you are unhappy with the quality of this product we anticipate to be able to replace it for you at the beginning of December. We will write again to confirm when you should post your current copy to us so that we can send you a replacement. Thank you for your patience." I live in hope!
 

Mike Frezon

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Brian:


Could you please share the contact information (to whom you reached out @ Fox) so others might be able to know where to write to get a similar "paper trail" started?


Thanks!
 

Brian Sharp

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Thought I would try and keep everything on paper so I completed the online query form to the UK division here: http://www.fox.co.uk/contact Received a holding reply about two weeks later and the above email popped into my mailbox today. I will keep the forum posted if the problems are corrected on the replacement discs
 

Wayne 1

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Hi. Any further news about replacement? I have just purchased West Side Story in the UK and am amazed at the problems with the disc! Also in correspondence with Fox over the dreadful sync problems with the South Pacific BD. It's amazing that these basic errors are taking place when many of them were avoided on the SD discs. There clearly are no enough professionals with real filmic knowledge, and understanding of cinema history, involved with these classic "restorations". Over the question of lip sync in South Pacific by the way, it is NOT the acknowledged problem with the production we all know about, but a major processing error on the BD which is not seen on the SD roadshow disc.
 

usrunnr

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"West Side Story" Blu-ray is for sale today at Amazon for $5.00. Kind of a give a way for a poor product. Does this mean there might be a new restoration or reissue in the future?
 

ijthompson

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usrunnr said:
"West Side Story" Blu-ray is for sale today at Amazon for $5.00. Kind of a give a way for a poor product. Does this mean there might be a new restoration or reissue in the future?

Man, I hope so. I'm still dying to buy this film on blu, but I'm not touching the current release with a ten-foot pole.
 

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