Movie & DVD Review: West Side Story (1961)

By Scott Holleran

Could it be? Yes, it could. Somethin’s coming—somethin’ good: MGM’s special edition DVD of its 1961 musical, West Side Story, based on the popular Broadway production, being released April 1, is worth every dollar.

Click to Buy 2-Disc DVD

Click to Buy 2-Disc DVD

DVD was made for movies like West Side Story, an outstanding creative achievement that won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Forty-two years later, Leonard Bernstein’s sweeping music, matched perfectly by Stephen Sondheim’s intelligent lyrics, is as captivating as ever. Jerome Robbins’ dazzling choreography, combining elements of jazz and ballet, puts today’s music video style musicals to shame. Here, dancers are seen actually dancing—in full-body shots for longer than a millisecond. Robbins also directed West Side Story with Robert Wise.

The cast includes Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as doomed lovers Maria and Tony with Rita Moreno and George Chakiris in their Oscar-winning roles as Puerto Rican immigrants on Manhattan’s west side.

The story, a tragedy loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is less compelling than the music. The deterministic, social worker morality wears thin. The teenage street thugs look, dress and talk better than most of today’s college graduates. As Sondheim suggests in the documentary, West Side Story primarily endures as an ode to falling in love.

“America”—the crackling confrontation between the pro-assimilation Puerto Rican girls and their self-pitying gang member boyfriends—holds up well. Both “Maria” and “Tonight” are as magical as ever.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) has put together a terrific two-disc package. Besides the usual scene selections—32 scenes pegged to the songs—languages (English, Spanish and French), and original theatrical trailers, the collector’s set includes the 2 1/2 hour movie with new audio, storyboards, original intermission music, photographs, and a one-hour documentary, “West Side Memories”, with cast and crew interviews.

While Oscar-winning actor Chakiris is conspicuously absent from the documentary and it would have been better to include a wider range of actors, the interviews cover a lot of material, including such unpleasant aspects as Robbins being fired. It is a rare treat to hear Natalie Wood’s own singing voice—dubbed without Wood’s knowledge by Marni Nixon—and each star is given his or her due.

The best new feature is the booklet, a handy reference guide with an introduction from screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the complete screenplay including revisions, original lobby brochure, and a chronology of the production from stage to screen. MGM, which released a standard DVD years ago, has given West Side Story the lush treatment it deserves, which ought to leave both newcomers and longtime fans singing right along.

Originally published on Box Office Mojo in 2003.

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