One Singular Sensation
In 1985, Broadway's longest running musical made its inevitable assemblé to the big screen. While some may claim it should have remained on the stage, Sir Richard Attenborough's production corrected several of its predecessor's flaws, leveraging the intensity and subtext of composer Marvin Hamlisch's music to create a stronger, more emotionally charged experience. Is it a flawless movie musical? No, but one that is certainly worth more than a casual look.
Facts of the Case
Just another day on the Broadway audition circuit. Hundreds of wide-eyed newcomers and bitter, cynical veterans shuffle in and out of stage doors hoping to land the one job that will make them a star—or at the very least pay this month's rent. As we focus in on one such event, renowned director Zach (Michael Douglas) is auditioning a mass of dancers to fill out the chorus line in his latest musical. There are no stars here, just human filler used to paint the background—until Cassie (Alyson Reed) shows up. Zach's former protégé and one time lover has limped back to New York, unable to translate her star power from stage to screen. Now she must face the ghosts of her past, swallow her pride, and compete with a handful of less talented dancers for the opportunity to be just another pair of legs in the crowd.
A Chorus Line has long been one of those musicals that must fire on all cylinders to succeed. Done poorly, it is more painful than a root canal without novocaine. Done well, it is a mesmerizing personal account of life behind the stage lights and perceived glamour of Broadway. Every cast has it cadre of characters, each with their own unique and often overly dramatic backstory. As with any good theatre experience, the audience makes a deep connection with these characters. The longevity of A Chorus Line speaks to the well-crafted storylines each of these dancers brings forth—a rotating spotlight of triumph and tragedy. The film allows for even greater exploration of these individuals, their relationships with each other, and the connection they do or do not make with Zach.
While the stage version tells a very linear tale of the dancers and their respective plights, Attenborough has layered his production by drawing out Zach and Cassie's relationship and using the tension to propel this story to its dénouement. Where the film falters is in its length. A tad overindulgent, after nearly two hours you feel as if you've gone through your own rigorous audition process. Don't get me wrong, this is a compelling and engaging film, but one that could do with a little tightening up. Much of Cassie's torturous, self-aggrandizing flashback sequences would have best been left on the cutting room floor, along with more than a few of Zach's long dramatic pauses. Those alone will devour 30 minutes of your life you'll never get back. The musical numbers also seem a bit stretched out, perhaps milking the magic a bit too long. Then again, Attenborough is not known for being brief—Ghandi (188 mins), A Bridge Too Far (176 mins), Chaplin (143 mins).
Complaints aside, the film is a tremendous character study with a cast that has both the legs and the chops to pull it off. Of the more recognizable names and faces, Janet Jones (Mrs. Wayne Gretzky) as Judy and Audrey Landers (Dallas) as Val are two of those fresh '80s faces who quickly dropped off into Hollywood obscurity. Both turn in good performances, with Audrey gaining the upper hand courtesy of "Tits and Ass" (AKA "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three")—always a showstopper. Two of the most captivating performances are turned in by Yamil Borges as Morales, casting a spell over the audience with "I Felt Nothing," and Cameron English as Paul, whose one on one with Zach is enough to bring a tear to even the driest eye. Alyson Reed as Cassie certainly hits her marks, but plays the sad sack role a bit too heavy-handedly. The only thing that could have made it worse was if she had lost both of her legs and still tried to make it as a dancer. Michael Douglas also overplays his characteristic pomposity. However, on certain occasions, it actually works surprisingly well. Despite these highs and lows, the cast is a true ensemble and you have no trouble believing they are all in this adventure together.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the cinematography of Ronnie Taylor (Ghandi) and the production design of Patrizia Von Brandenstein (Amadeus, Quick and the Dead, The Untouchables) gives you the true feeling of taking part in a musical cattle call. The gritty, washed-out colors of the naked stage and the many twists and turns within this hallowed theatre are dead-on accurate. Credit MGM for giving us the full 16x9 experience, but the transfer seems somewhat lacking. While the fair amount of film grain emphasizes the raw, cold nature of the theatre business, it comes across as giving the print restoration low priority on DVD. The blacks, respectable but unimpressive, help to draw focus to the characters taking center while swallowing those not currently in action. The Dolby 2.0 audio track does an adequate job but fails to take advantage of the full surround experience, placing us in the audience observing all of the activity in this expansive building. Unlike many movie musicals, Marvin Hamlisch's music and lyrics are content to play a supporting role, called upon to punctuate a story or message. Many stage version faithful will be disappointed to see several numbers missing, replaced by new ones—but that's Hollywood.
Not much in the way of bonus features here. You'll enjoy seeing the original theatrical trailer and may be mildly entertained by the Marvin Hamlisch retrospective, but most will be disappointed there is nothing more. A featurette or look back would have been a nice addition, but then again what can you expect for $14.95.
Movie musical aficionados will be pleased to finally see this film on DVD, while the stage loyalists' ire will be raised once again. That's life in the movie business. Love it or hate it, A Chorus Line is here and is certainly worth a rental.
This court thanks MGM and the other major studios for their continued commitment in upgrading this genre to DVD. Now if we can only get them to film and preserve the actual stage versions of major modern musicals for posterity—Bebe Neuwirth in Chicago, Nathan Lane in The Producers, Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard—then we would be making real progress. Until then, this court stands adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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