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Blu-ray Reviews: West Side Story

Originally published in Australian HI-FI, 2011
Last updated 21 August 2012

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West Side Story
1961 - Roadshow Entertainment
Director: Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Jimmy Bryant (voice) and Marni Nixon (voice)

Movie: Picture: Sound: Extras:

I fell in love with Leonard Bernstein by growing up with the New York Philharmonic's version of Beethoven's 9th. He conducted of course. Later I read in Tom Wolf's 'Radical Chic' that he was bit of a prat.

But who cares? What he will be eternally remembered for is the music of West Side Story.

Another take on Romeo and Juliet, half the music rhythmically drives the two street gangs as they snarl at each other in stylised dance. I've always found this a little forced at the start, until I remember that a musical must inevitably be a fantasy, not grittily realistic representation.

Still, and perhaps it is merely me adjusting over the course of the movie, I feel that the sense of danger ramps up as the movie progresses, and the dancing becomes more expressively menacing.

The other half of the music is something which is far too rare: music of near unutterable beauty. 'Maria', 'Tonight', 'Somewhere' -- these are as good as it gets. I love modern music with the best of them, but beauty is an attribute sadly lacking. Thank goodness -- and Leonard Bernstein -- for West Side Story.

Movies -- especially big, carefully made ones -- from this period can be tricky when it comes to sound quality. West Side Story should sound good. Some release prints (the 70mm variety) employed six track magnetic sound. One of the movie's ten Oscars was for 'Best Sound'.

But I thought it only adequate. The 24 bit DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 format surely captures every morsel of audio available, but I think the original mix was simply a bit too lifeless, as though dynamically compressed. Listen to a fine Jazz disc from roughly the same period -- say 'Kind of Blue' -- and it has its problems, but dynamic compression isn't one of them. The percussion simply doesn't punch through the mix, and that's a pity.

Strings are a trifle harsh, but voices are nicely captured, with a particular sweetness to Marni Nixon's songs on behalf of Natalie Wood. A reasonable stereo separation is provided, without overdoing the bleed back to the surround channels.

It sounds far better than my soundtrack CD, but nowhere near as good as I'd hoped.

But on Blu-ray it looks as sweet as Marni Nixon sounds, and the movie is one of the greats. It remains a must-have for any serious collection.

Running time: 154 minutes
Picture: 2.35:1, 1080p24, MPEG4 AVC @ 23.49Mbps
Sound: DTS-HD Master Audio 24/48 3/4.1 @ 5019kbps (core: DTS 24/48 3/2.1 @ 1509kbps); French, German: DTS 24/48 3/2.1 @ 768kbps; English, Spanish: Dolby Digital 3/2.1 @ 448kbps
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Porgutuese, German, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Chinese, Danish
Extras: 'Pow!' Version (movie with seamless branches to featurettes on dances - 173 mins); Music Machine (Song content of movie only, via branching - 85 mins); Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim (1080p24, MPEG4 AVC, DD2.0 @ 224kbps - 20 mins); 'Pow! The Dances of West Side Story' individual featurettes (1080p24, MPEG4 AVC, DD2.0 @ 224kbps - 19 mins)
Restrictions: Rated (Australian rating); Region free

The following video bitrate graph were generated by BDInfo 0.5.7. This is for the movie:

'Pow!' version:

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