Release Date(s)2021 (March 15, 2022)
Studio(s)Amblin Entertainment/TSG Entertainment (20th Century Studios)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
In 1950s New York City, a pair of street gangs—the Jets (white kids led by Riff, Mike Faist) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican2s led by Bernardo, David Alvarez)—battle for dominance in a run-down Upper West Side neighborhood that’s due to be razed to make room for luxury apartments. Doing his best to avoid getting caught up in their fight is Tony (Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver), who’s served time for nearly killing a rival gang member. Tony lives in the basement of a general store in exchange for helping out around the shop. It’s widowed owner, Valentina (Rita Moreno) hopes to guide the young man onto a better path. When Tony meets Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) at a local dance, they fall instantly in love, and things seem to be looking up for them both. But it turns out that Bernardo is Maria’s brother, and he isn’t about to let their relationship go any further. So despite his best intentions, Tony finds himself drawn back into a spiral of violence that could have terrible consequences for them all.
Based upon Jerome Robbins’ 1957 stage musical (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents), Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a remarkably effective big screen update, which builds upon Robert Wise’s 1961 film while making the material feel more fresh and contemporary. One of the main knocks against the Wise film is a supposed lack of style on the part of its director, but that’s neither fair nor quite accurate. While it’s true that Wise seldom indulged in creative flourishes in his work (which also includes The Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent, Run Deep, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture), it’s more truthful to say that he simply chose to focus on making each of his films as effective and believable as possible without putting his own stamp on them. Wise’s West Side Story was also a hybrid experience combining elements of stage and screen, whereas Spielberg’s set his version in a more realistic urban environment.
Spielberg’s direction also exhibits more obvious flair and verve, yet his cinematic style wouldn’t be out of place had the film actually been made in the 1950s. The scenic design is rich and convincing (and features many real NYC locations), and the film’s staging and choreography make clever use of it. While the songs have been reordered a bit, the changes actually serve the story well. The supporting cast delivers solid dramatic performances in addition to their song and dance work. Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the original film) is delightful in a new role that lends a welcome connection to the older generation of Puerto Rican immigrants. And Elgort and Zegler shine as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria (who were played by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in the 1961 film). But Zegler is such a natural vocalist that she occasionally eclipses Elgort, whose voice just isn’t quite as expressive or emotive. Still, it’s a minor nitpick. Elgort remains likable as ever and, for most of the film’s running time, he rises to the occasion and holds his own commendably.
West Side Story was shot on 35 mm photochemical film by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński using Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 cameras, with Panavision anamorphic lenses, and was finished as a native 4K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. For its release on Ultra HD, 20th Century Studios (read: Disney) presents the film graded for high dynamic range (only HDR10 is included). The 4K image is very good looking on the whole, though it does have a slightly compressed look that obviously results from the fact—per usual—that the studio has released it on a BD-66 disc instead of a BD-100. There’s so much detail and texturing in the image that the extra data space would really have allowed the image to breathe a little more, resulting in better depth and naturalism. Still, fine detail is excellent. The exterior sets have a somewhat muted and monotone palette, which allows the filmmakers to add vibrant splashes of color with costume fabrics, props, and bright lighting (which is often very theatrical). That tighting is used effectively to create highlights, reflections, and to help characters stand out from backgrounds. The 10-bit color enhances this stylized palette well, while helping to retain a period look. All in all, this is a very nice 4K image, but it falls short of the best the UHD format has to offer.
Primary audio is available in an English Dolby Atmos mix that offers excellent musical fidelity, even if it’s somewhat less aggressive than other such mixes—not a surprise given that this is a musical as opposed to an actioner. The soundstage is pleasingly wide and immersive, creating a smooth, natural, and fully hemispheric sound field. The height channels make use of occasional panning and fill, while the surrounds offer subtle direction cues and good depth of staging during musical numbers. Low end isn’t exactly robust, again no surprise given the material, but it’s firm enough to add a pleasing richness. Dialogue and vocals are clean and easily discernible, with lovely clarity, and the film’s iconic score is presented in a lush new recording featuring Gustavo Dudamel conducting the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras. This Atmos mix certainly serves the film, its visuals, and this music well indeed. Additional audio options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus, with subtitles available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.
There are no extras on the 4K disc, but the package includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray and that disc adds the following:
- The Stories of West Side Story (HD – 13 parts – 96:53 in all)
- Opening (HD – 3:46)
- Prologue (HD – 7:54)
- Sharks & Jets (HD – 11:30)
- Dance at the Gym (HD – 9:42)
- The Romance (HD – 6:49)
- America (HD – 7:51)
- Gee, Officer Krupke (HD – 8:50)
- Cool (HD – 7:46)
- From Quintet to the Rumble (HD – 9:31)
- I Feel Pretty (HD – 6:04)
- Somewhere (HD – 8:02)
- Finale (HD – 7:02)
- Tribute (HD – 1:57)
- The Songs (song selection menu – 16 tracks)
The Stories of West Side Story is a feature-length documentary by longtime Spielberg documentarian Laurent Bouzereau. Presented in 13 parts with a “play all” option, it essentially tracks various scenes and songs through the film in chronological order and, in so doing, gradually touches upon most of the aspects you’d want to see covered in a documentary like this. It opens with Spielberg talking about his connection to the musical and how he got involved in the film, then you see the first day of shooting, and you start to meet all of the key cast and crew members who played a significant role in the production. At various points, you learn how the leads were chosen, you see the effort to choreograph various scenes, you see the various recording sessions (Moreno appears often), you’re there at rehearsal sessions, and get to see the filming of many scenes out on location. The late Sondheim (who died in December 2021) even appears several times with comments (and there’s a nice tribute to him at the end). Bouzereau’s documentaries are always consistently good, and this one is no different. And given that it’s a musical, as opposed to a genre film, you never feel as though you’re missing coverage of any important aspect. If you enjoyed West Side Story, every minute of this documentary is interesting. Note that the Blu-ray also includes a song selection option and there’s a Movies Anywhere Digital code on a paper insert.
Was anyone out there really clamoring for a new film adaptation of West Side Story? If its lackluster box office take is any indication, it seems not. Nevertheless, Steven Spielberg has delivered an engrossing and cinematic musical that actually elevates this material and somehow makes it feel more relevant than ever. The film has a number of moments when it truly soars, something that happens often enough to make it compelling viewing even for non-musical fans. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be in its target audience, West Side Story in 4K with Atmos is well worth your time.
- Bill Hunt