There is a moment in Richard Attenborough’s expensive flop, A Chorus Line (1985) when Broadway producer, Zach (Michael Douglas) suggests to his one-time paramour, Cassie (Alyson Reed) that the chorus is something every self-respecting dancer should aspire to escape from, not get in to – a message not inherent in the original show and one utterly in conflict with Broadway’s exaltation of those nameless hoofers who regularly round out an evening’s entertainment on the Great White Way. In many ways, Arnold Schulman’s screenplay unravels the myth of Broadway as a derogatory critique of the arty and nameless; distilling their collective desperation into garish pantomime.
With its snappy, occasionally introspective Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban score and a book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, superficially following the tryouts of seventeen aspiring dancers, but delving into so much more along the way, on stage A Chorus Line rocked Broadway for 6,137 performances (the longest running U.S. musical until Chicago): the recipient of nine Tony Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That A Chorus Line: The Movie became a leaden and virtually charm free wan ghost flower of its illustrious predecessor was therefore something of a baffle, bungle and colossal disappointment; the movie’s resistance to ‘opening up’ the original premise resulting in some strained claustrophobia rather than a cozy backstage atmosphere.
Arguably, Richard Attenborough was the wrong director for a movie musical. Throughout the 1980’s, Hollywood repeatedly displayed a perverse fascination for miscasting its creative talent in their attempts to reinvigorate the big budget Hollywood musical. Yet A Chorus Line is so hapless and ill-served by its bloated budget, so implicitly flawed in its execution and sloppily patched together in the editing process, it miserably fails to remind the viewer what all the elation of that ‘singular sensation’ was about in the first place. It’s difficult to say where more of the responsibility lays, in Attenborough’s complete inability to visualize the movie’s magical musical moments with any sort of spark of originality (even an inkling of creative inventiveness would have been nice) or, in the slap-dash way his cast seems to be going through the motions.
A Chorus Line: The Movie implodes before our very eyes as few Hollywood musicals of any vintage have, embarrassingly and with a regularity that renders the iconic stage spectacle as nothing better than a magic lantern dumb show, meant to amuse but rising above dreck only as an afterthought. Can we please have a musical unapologetic about being ‘a musical’?!? A Chorus Line shrugs and blushes and slinks away from showing us the terpsichorean highlights of its auditioning dancers at every turn, with cutaways and inserts of action and dramatic bits of dialogue going on somewhere else. One truly wonders what Attenborough’s intentions were in making the movie. What sort of dramatic and/or political statement is he trying to make and why has he chosen the leitmotif of the Broadway to Hollywood hybrid musical to do it?
Barring any comment from its creator, A Chorus Line just feels like a bad idea made interminably dull beyond all comprehension. Every time it looks as though we’re in for a treat Ronnie Taylor’s cinematography moves to the wings or worse, maintains that ‘third wall’ proscenium of a real Broadway theater, putting the movie-going audience at a considerable distance from the dancers we’re supposed to get to know, feel compassion for and eventually come to love as the great talents they so obviously aspire to become. Instead, we get a series of highly toned bodies photographed mostly in long shot, the cinematic space never dominated by any one performer.
Take the lyrical triage of Kristine Evelyn Erlich-DeLuca (Nicole Fosse), Sheila Bryant (Vicki Frederick) and Beatrice Ann ‘Bebe’ Benson (Michelle Johnston) performing ‘At the Ballet’ – a devastating confessional about stage-struck mothers and delinquent dads. Instead of being brought into the song, Attenborough and Taylor give us isolated headshots of all three actresses and incessant moments of full body stagnation, shot against an uninspiring black backdrop. For all intent and purpose one is immediately reminded of what this moment must have felt like on Broadway’s opening night, where the electricity of the performance is all an audience has to go on to sustain the magic. Yet, movies in general – and movie musicals in particular - demand something more to sell their moments with equal aplomb.
That ‘something more’ is what is consistently lacking from A Chorus Line and it is woefully missed almost from the moment the opening credits have stopped rolling right up until the finale: ‘One’ - staged with remarkable intricacy. It is interesting to note that A Chorus Line: The Movie lists no credit for choreography but instead gives a nod to Broadway’s original choreographer, Michael Bennett who, as far as I can tell, was not brought in to attempt an improvement (or at the very least, re-conceptualization) of his work for the film. In absence of any musical direction Attenborough has taken to a literate photographing of the play…sort of…and choosing to make just about every major mistake a director can when attempting to breathe life into a concept written and expressly conceived for the stage.
Perhaps the work does not lend itself to a movie adaptation, though I sincerely doubt it. What is lacking from A Chorus Line: The Movie is screen intimacy, and drama (melo or otherwise), and ultimately heart – a real feel for the material. We want to love these characters. But the more they cavort and tap and emote with sycophantic gaffes and nervous ticks that make virtually all of them seem more fit for padded bedrooms at Belleville than the Broadway theater, the more we come to realize that maybe Attenborough was right: the chorus is a very tawdry affair, one any sane person would shriek and run from rather than endure. And endure it they must, under the tyrannical tutelage of director, Zach (Michael Douglas) who seems to derive great masochistic pleasure from, at first criticizing virtually every step his hopefuls’ take, then by poking a stick into their firm, fleshy underbellies to probe their unhappy childhood memories. Some resist, but most play ball. They have to. Their future careers may depend on it.
Plot wise: Zach is a cold and exacting task master. He demands and expects only the best from the dancers he auditions. To this end he doesn’t allow favoritism or personal feelings to cloud his professional judgment…again, sort of. Zach’s one blind spot is Cassie (Alyson Reed), the girl who gave both Zach and the stage the old heave-ho for a chance to become famous in Hollywood after she garnered great reviews on Broadway in one of his previous shows. Too bad the trek to L.A. wasn’t all stardust and adulation. Big surprise: it didn’t last. So, now she’s back and primed for a comeback on the stage, in the chorus – and possibly - even in Zach’s bedroom. We’ll see.
Zach’s stage manager, Larry (Terrance Mann) is overjoyed to see Cassie, while Zach’s private secretary, Kim (Sharon Brown) remembers her fondly as the best dancer Zach ever had in his shows. But Zach is the brooding/bitter type. After being told by Larry that Cassie is waiting for him in the wings, Zach tells Kim to politely ask Cassie to leave; then further insults her pride by suggesting he can have his producer throw her a couple of bucks to get lost. Nice guy…real prince among men! However, Cassie doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The girl has guts, and class - each far surpassing any of the brood currently auditioning for Zach. Still, Zach isn’t willing to give her a chance. Cassie presses the point, breaking into an impromptu solo before being forced by Zach to take a look – a really critical one – at the hopefuls parading on stage. Their goose-stepping garishness, leering faces, stiff limbs gesticulating like the brittle limbs of a dying tree in all directions, isn’t enough to dissuade Cassie from the obvious; that the chorus is no place for her. So Zach relents. What else can he do?
A Chorus Line is well stocked with a lot of fresh faces who, for the most part, are stage thespians; Michael Blevins’ openly gay Mark Tobori, Yamil Borges’ proud Puerto Rican, Diana Morales, Jan Gan Boyd as Connie Wong, who worries her rather anemic cleavage is no match for Val Clarke’s (Audrey Landers) artificially inflated ‘tits and ass’, and, Cameron English as Paul San Marco, a former queen with a bum knee whose sob story (his parents caught him dancing inside a drag club) is more apathetic than empathy-inducing . Part of A Chorus Line’s central problem is that none of the aforementioned has their ‘break out’ moment. None, apart from Michael Douglas (who already had a career by the time he appeared herein), strike an indelible chord with the audience. They’re just not interesting enough to hold the spotlight, even for short periods of time.
Finally, there is the handling – or rather, mishandling - of the score to consider; the Hamlisch/Kleban songs dealt an immeasurable blow by having their originally lush Broadway orchestrations distilled into a decidedly 80’s techno-beat mishmash. Everything, even the ballads suffer this tinny pulse, thus rendering all under the same Muzak-inspired, ‘pop-tune light’ formula and leaving virtually each to fall flat. Add to this the woeful chopping up of lyrics and accompanying dances in the editing process and the songs are no longer meaningful or even complete, but previews for a score we never get to appreciate in totem.
Schulman’s screenplay struggles to find meaning with what is essentially a one room 'dramady' set to music. Zach is our master of ceremonies throughout the auditions. But quite simply, there is little reason for the audience to ‘invest’ themselves in what happens to these characters. Ronnie Taylor’s fatally dull cinematography manages to perforate the sheer job of every musical sequence – except, debatably, 'One' the galvanic in glittery gold, glitz and glam-bam finale that closes out the show. Unfortunately for director Richard Attenborough, nothing in his movie is as thrilling as being seated in a live theatre on opening night; a gross miscalculation from which the film never recovers. In the last analysis, A Chorus Line: The Movie is a lumbering, lethal mess; its singular sensation - tedium.
MGM/Fox Home Video has missed the mark on A Chorus Line: the Blu-ray. With so many better movies in the studio’s canon still awaiting a hi-def debut it’s rather disappointing to see A Chorus Line get the nod and the push ahead of the pack. And what’s here doesn’t look all that impressive. Back in 2004, A Chorus Line’s video files were upgraded for its DVD release. These same files appear to be the basis for this 1080p upgrade. This isn’t a rescan, folks – so, what’s the point? Colors are anemic throughout. The image really doesn’t tighten up or pop as one might expect. The few exterior shots that ‘open up’ the beginning of the movie look fairly impressive.
But once we get inside the theater the image is uninspiringly flat with contrast marginally better than on the aforementioned DVD. Fine detail is generally lacking and film grain appears to have been digitally scrubbed. No, we’re not talking about those ugly ‘waxy’ images from too much DNR. But we’re also not looking at a very film-like transfer either. No undue edge enhancement, except for a very a brief shimmer near the end. I have to say I was singularly unimpressed with the video and audio on this disc – the latter still 2.0, albeit DTS herein. It would have been good of Fox to go back and give us a new 5.1 – but no. Not happening. We also lose the video piece featuring the late Marvin Hamlisch affectionately waxing about his contributions on the stage hit. All we get here is the original theatrical trailer. Boring – though, I’ll venture an opinion…not as dull as the movie. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)