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'West Side Story' comes to Blu-ray at last, and though a couple of transfer glitches put a damper on its coming out party, this is still an impressive release that will dazzle diehard fans and delight those who have yet to experience this exhilarating Oscar-winning classic. An iconic musical that brims with breathtaking choreography and features one of the most beloved scores in history, 'West Side Story' still packs a hefty emotional punch and makes potent statements about prejudice and violence. Performances across the board remain relevant and affecting, and the direction looks as fresh and vital today as it surely did 50 years ago. New supplements add luster to this presentation, which includes superior video and audio that makes this time-honored tale come alive like never before. If anyone tells you musicals aren't cool, show them 'West Side Story.' Its brilliance speaks for itself.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
'West Side Story' arrives on Blu-ray mired in a bit of controversy. While I often found the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer to be breathtaking - and a big step up from the previous DVD - a significant gaffe has rained on this release's parade, sparking mea culpas from Fox and a promise of replacement discs (though no dates or timeframes have been forthcoming). The mistake may seem insignificant to some, but film purists are rightly outraged. The error occurs at the end of the movie's overture; the innovative line pattern over a series of solid-colored panels developed by title master Saul Bass is supposed to dissolve into the skyline of Manhattan without a hitch, but on the Blu-ray there's an odd fadeout that deletes the final green-tinted frame, destroying continuity and diminishing the wow factor of the effect. If you own the previous DVD version of 'West Side Story,' you can see how this marvelous concept is supposed to work. Unfortunately, some dingbat at Fox saw fit to monkey with a work of art (maybe to facilitate a more definite chaptering break between the overture and the main feature?). Whatever the motivation, it's a shame such a big boo-boo has to afflict and tarnish what I consider to be a first-rate transfer.
Is 'West Side Story' perfect? No. But the film has certainly never looked better than it does in its current high-def incarnation, and there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments of vibrant color, razor-sharp clarity, and spectacular detail. Hues are brighter and truer than they were on the DVD, yet they maintain a winning naturalness. Yellows and purples are especially well rendered, and the tinted glass in Maria's apartment, as well as the shadows it emits during 'Somewhere,' provide lovely accents that enhance the frame without overpowering it. Fleshtones are spot-on and black levels are always solid and deep, with only an occasional instance of crush. Close-ups are gorgeous, even the ones filmed in soft focus; all exhibit marvelous detail and flaunt a hint of dimension that makes the intimate scenes even more immediate and potent.
The opening aerial shots of New York are greatly improved, possessing far more detail and clarity than ever before, and such challenging moments as the psychedelic dissolve from the twirling Maria into the gym dance scene and the gauzy, blurred shots that frame Tony and Maria during their initial meeting and later while singing 'Tonight' are handled with aplomb. Patterns are strong, fabrics and textures are well delineated, and background detail is excellent. The heightened clarity occasionally exposes the artificiality of sets and backdrops, but doesn't destroy the urban feel.
Grain has been greatly reduced, yet the movie never looks hyper-processed, retaining the feel and texture of celluloid. A bit of aliasing affects some shots - I noticed it most during 'I Have a Love' - but it's faint and not prevalent throughout. Banding is absent, however, and there's no digital noise, even in the darkest scenes.
Unfortunately, a few blips keep this transfer from achieving the heights it should have scaled, but it's far from the mess some have purported it to be. Most of the time, I was blown away by it, and for the most part, it does this classic film proud.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
'West Side Story' comes equipped with a superb DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track that's a big improvement over the previous DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. But some audiophiles may not be entirely pleased. Reportedly, the film's recently discovered and restored six-track masters, which I believe were used in the movie's recent theatrical roadshow presentation, were passed over for this Blu-ray release in favor of the more cost-friendly four-track masters. Such a decision is disappointing, to be sure, but the 'West Side Story' audio that accompanies this Blu-ray remains top-notch and should thrill most listeners.
From the opening strains of the overture, the exceptional quality of this track is immediately apparent. Filled with bright, soaring highs and weighty lows, and distinguished by a crystal clarity, the sound is perfectly mixed and provides a seamless surround feel. The movie may be 50 years old, but the audio sounds like it was recorded yesterday. No surface defects, such as hiss or errant pops, detract from the clean tones, and no distortion ever creeps in.
The music enjoys superior dynamic range, from the screaming brass that peppers many numbers to Maria's lilting soprano. The famous 'Tonight Quintet' presents many challenges, as voices compete for prominence and various melodies bounce off each other, but this track handles the five vocal lines with ease, so we can appreciate the musical complexities while still comprehending the lyrics. Dialogue, too, is always well prioritized and easy to understand, and spreads nicely across the front speakers, lending many conversations a nice directional quality. Stereo separation is also strong during the songs and scoring, and solid bass frequencies subtly punch up various scenes without overwhelming them.
Details are crisp and distinct, from footsteps on the cement sidewalks to the Jets' finger snapping to the rattling of metal fences. And though surround activity is limited during the dramatic scenes, the music subtly envelops us, creating a cohesive aural environment that draws us deeper into the film.
Instead of rueing what might have been, just enjoy this marvelous track, which serves this classic motion picture quite well.
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