Last week, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the dazzling musical “West Side Story” was shown in selected movie theaters around the country for one night only.
I’m going to assume that, like me, most of you missed this screening. If so, here’s the good news: The movie is now out, for the first time, on Blu-ray, and you need to make it a must-buy this holiday season.
Our family watched the new Blu-ray version of “West Side Story” the other night on our 52-inch high-definition TV, and this version of the movie, remastered in 1080p HD, had a brilliant look and sound. The movie was originally shot in Super Panavision, on film that was 65mm wide. For showing in movie theaters the film was then printed on film that was 70 mm wide — the extra 5mm to accommodate the soundtrack.
I own a lot of movies in both the Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats, and I would say this Blu-ray release needs to be a fundamental part of any home entertainment library.
It is rare that the visual style of a film literally demands that it be seen in high-definition on Blu-ray, but “West Side Story” is such a film.
What makes this movie such a stunning achievement still, 50 years after its initial release, is above all, its choreography. The choreography in the movie version of “West Side Story” does more than bedazzle — it astounds, it captivates, it soars and it enchants. It mesmerized me and my friends when we originally saw the movie in theaters just as we were entering our teenage years five decades ago, and it continues to enthrall today.
I can’t tell you the number of hours my friends and I would pretend we were members of either the Jet or Shark gangs, snapping our fingers and clumsily acting out the choreography of the rumble or other scenes. (Oh, the snapping of the fingers in this movie — the pent-up tension of those snaps, signaling, all at once, that something wicked this way comes, and it’s something that’s sensual and sexual and nasty and violent.)
I’ve always found the movie version of “West Side Story” far more exhilarating than the stage version. Much of that comes from the bravura staging of not only the initial introduction of the Sharks and Jets, but a number of the other numbers as well, particularly the rooftop performance of “America” and “Cool” in the garage.
We have the genius of Jerome Robbins to thank for the breathtaking dancing in “West Side Story,” and he paid a price for his hard work. Robbins, a truly innovative and brilliant choreographer, had initially conceived the idea of “West Side Story.” He recruited a dazzling team of collaborators: Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the music, Arthur Laurents, who wrote the story, and a young Stephen Sondheim to pen the lyrics. For the movie version, Ernest Lehman was added to the team to write the screenplay.
Here, in an excerpt from the book “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute,” edited by George Stevens Jr., is director Robert Wise explaining how it came to pass that both he and Robbins share the directing credit on “West Side Story”:
Harold Mirisch [who, along with his brothers Walter and Marvin, owned the film rights to the stage musical] asked me if I wanted to produce and direct it, and I reacted with great excitement and said, ‘I’d love to.’ Robbins, who by contract in the sale of the stage play had the right to do the film choreography, chose not to. He said the he had directed and choreographed the stage show, had done the same for the national company and the English company, and he didn’t want to come out to the West Coast just to do the choreography. He wanted to be more deeply involved in the whole production. I said, ’Why don’t you give it to him, let him direct.’ But [studio and film distributor] United Artists thought there was no way they could do that. It was going to be a big, expensive, complex picture, and they were not going to let a man inexperienced in film direct it.
I thought about it for a while, then put on my producer’s hat and said to myself, ‘What’s the very best thing for this picture in terms of the audience?’ The answer had to come back, ‘If you can somehow get Jerry Robbins on this picture, that’s the way to go because Jerry is so creative and so inventive.’ I just knew he would be able to contribute so much more than any of his dance assistants who might come on the film to do the choreography. Jerry would find ways of improving, changing, adapting it for the screen. A period of six months went on with meeting between the two of us, trying to sort out just how we could deal with this.
We finally come to a setup where he would work as co-director and would be involved in all aspects of the film — the script, the production design, the casting, the costumes, the music, the whole thing. When it came to shooting, he would have the deciding voice on the music and dance numbers, and I would have the say on all the ‘book’ aspects of the script. When we had an impasse, I had the final say as the producer of the film.
Jerry didn’t stay on all the way through — he was on over 50% of the shooting. [Wise later said it was closer to 60%.] We had some rough moments, not too many, but we managed to work them out — though there were a few times when we rather got at each other. But, finally, we were getting very far behind schedule, and United Artists was very worried. They decided that the tandem arrangement was slowing us down and insisted that I take over the whole show, which I did.
However, fortunately for me, Jerry had rehearsed all the dance numbers that remained to be filmed and his assistants [except for one] stayed with me to compete the film. … When I finished [the film] I asked Jerry to look at the first rough cut and he liked much of it, made good suggestions about the editing on a number of things and wanted to do a little more editing on some of his numbers. So I think we patched things up fairly successfully.
Wise says he was also responsible for making Robbins came to the Oscars ceremony, where “West Side Story" won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Wise and Robbins.
The film was an immediate critical success and a smash at the box office. The movie cost $6 million to make and made close to $44 million. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the 66th-highest-grossing film of all time, according to Box Office Mojo.
While most critics liked the film — the opening of Bosley Crowther’s review in The New York Times read, “What they have done with ‘West Side Story’ in knocking it down and moving it from stage to screen is to reconstruct its fine material into nothing short of a cinema masterpiece.” — one critic, later to become very well known, panned it: Pauline Kael. Kael later said that her boyfriend at the time broke up with her because she didn’t like the movie. Good for him.
It looks to me that a number of the extras that come with the Blu-ray version have been released before, but I enjoyed all of them, especially the commentaries on the dance numbers. In one of the extras there is a short discussion about Saul Bass, who illustrated the prologue to the movie and then did the fun and fitting end credits.
What I didn’t see anywhere was credit to Bass for the just-right graphics on the cover of this Blu-ray release, which is a variation of the famous movie poster Bass created for “West Side Story.”
In her critique of the movie, Pauline Kael wrote, “[The] dance movements are so sudden and huge, so portentously ‘aliv
e’ they’re always near the explosion point. … There is the choreographer Jerome Robbins (who conceived the stage musical) to convert the street rumbles into modern ballet — though he turns out to be too painstaking for big-powered moviemaking and the co-director Robert Wise takes over.”
What actually happened, by all accounts that I’ve seen, is that Robbins was such a perfectionist that he was causing the production to go way over budget. So, yes, he had to go. Fortunately, Wise was smart enough to complete Robbins’ vision, and was able to do so because of all the rehearsal time Robbins had with his cast.
As for Robbins’ choreography, Kael seems to miss the point. It is in its very largess, in its kinetic energy, that the choreography propels “West Side Story,” almost unique among movie musicals. The dancing IS the conflict that makes for the great drama of the movie.#