“What made you start dancing?”
Director Richard Attenborough took on a great challenge in his 1985 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line, now having its day on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox. While this adaptation of the film certainly has its problems, there is still a great deal to recommend with it.
The central question of A Chorus Line leads its cast into personal and professional revelations about show business, about life in New York, and about both the simplest and most complex problems of surviving on your own terms. The film begins with the selection of sixteen dancers – eight men and eight women – to be whittled down to a final eight that will join a major Broadway production as the chorus line. We’re introduced to our main characters in an extended opening sequence as each dancer mentally prays to be one of the chosen few. The film begins to properly move with the lining up of the sixteen dancers whose stories we hear over the course of the film. Choreographer Zach (Michael Douglas) questions each dancer in turn about their past, and what brought them to the Broadway stage. At times moving and at times just this side of trite, the sixteen dancers begin to reveal themselves, to Zach and to each other, in the hopes of being one of the eight chosen performers.
A Chorus Line features only one recognizable Hollywood face in the form of Michael Douglas, with the rest of the cast is largely drawn from Broadway. This includes Terrence Mann, as assistant choreographer Larry; Michael Blevins as Mark; Nicole Fosse (choreographer Bob Fosse’s daughter) as Kristine; and Gregg Burge as Richie, a role that he played on Broadway (Burge also served as an assistant choreographer on the film). Due to the mostly Broadway cast, the dancing is spectacular, in itself a justification of the film’s existence. Attenborough handles each musical number with a surprising deftness that some current directors of Hollywood musicals would do well to learn from. There are few frills in the production, as it relies more on the dancing and music to provide a solid emotional tenor. Douglas anchors the film as strong interlocutor with his own problems too, as we come to discover in his relationship with former star Cassie (Alyson Reed). Thankfully he does not try to dance or sing though, which is more than I can say for a number of actors working in musicals today.
A Chorus Line has been criticized for cutting out certain extended songs and replacing them with other, lesser ones, including removing Cassie’s major number “The Music and the Mirror” from the stage version and adding the somewhat lackluster “Let Me Dance For You.” Indeed, the background romance between Cassie and Zach is one of the major failings of the film, taking away screen time from the more interesting narratives of the other dancers. Also subsumed is the stage version’s concern for the tribulations of gay performers, now all but a background note and hardly addressed in the film.
Comparing stage and film versions will usually find the film wanting, and A Chorus Line must be taken as it is. Despite some miscues and stumbles, the film’s strengths make the audience feel great sympathy for a group of performers that we only come to know, as Zach does, through what they’re willing to talk about. Musical highlights include “At The Ballet,” an emotionally complex account of the female dancers’ love of the ballet; “Surprise, Surprise,” a raunchy and impressive dance number about losing your virginity; and the finale “One,” which most of us will recognize as the major number from A Chorus Line. The song gives us the pleasure of seeing the entire cast perform together, and on a large HD screen it’s an impressive way to end the film.
Like the movie itself, the Blu-Ray edition of A Chorus Line is very no-frills. The presentation itself is fine, admittedly. The DTS-HD 2.0 master audio comes across strong and well-balanced, as we might hope from in a musical, and visually, the colors pop and the Dual Layer picture quality is exceptional and especially noticeable in the gold-accented finale.
The special features, though, are thin on the ground, with nothing but the original theatrical trailer. One could have hoped for at least some director or actor commentary, perhaps some background information on the production, both stage and film, and on Marvin Hamlisch, the writer of the musical. Unfortunately, there’s nothing but the film and that will have to suffice.
A Chorus Line feels like a snapshot into the difficulties of being a dancer in New York City, and for all its shortcomings it still has resonance. Attenborough has a good musical sensibility, for the most part allowing the audience to see the full range of motion of which his performers are capable. While A Chorus Line will fall short when compared with other “backstage” musicals like 42nd Street or All That Jazz, it’s still worth a watch. Besides, at an asking price of less than $20, there are worse ways to spend two hours.
An enjoyable if uneven piece of entertainment, A Chorus Line sometimes misses the beat and sometimes comes in right on cue. Overall though, it's worth a look.