The stage version of A Chorus Line, which opened in 1975, won nine Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and remains the sixth longest running Broadway show, ever.
With music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, and book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, it was set on a bare stage with no props to speak of. That’s because A Chorus Line sought to tell the story of determined dancers as they went through the audition process for a Broadway production. There was no setting other than the stage, and no plot other than their hopes and dreams and personalities that came out during the grueling process. The dancers line up, they’re grilled by the choreographer, and, like jazz musicians they riff on a dancer’s life through individual and small group songs and dances—all designed to answer the choreographer’s questions through what they do best.
Needless to say, when you have such a successful show that ran for 6,137 performances, expectations ran high when it was announced in 1985 that Richard Attenborough (a director-actor who’s perhaps most recognizable to filmgoers because of his role as John Hammond in “Jurassic Park”) was going to make a film version.
Would the raw energy of performers on a minimalist stage and the tension of auditioning survive the transfer to the big screen?
The late, great Roger Ebert thought that it did. “The result may not please purists who want a film record of what they saw on stage, but this is one of the most intelligent and compelling movie musicals in a long time,” Ebert wrote in his review.
But for every review like Ebert’s there was one like Vincent Canby’s of The New York Times, who in his review deadpanned, “Though it was generally agreed that ‘Hair’ would not work as a film, Milos Forman transformed it into one of the most original pieces of musical cinema of the last 20 years. They said that ‘A Chorus Line’ couldn’t be done—and this time they were right. . . . Mr. Attenborough has elected to make a more or less straightforward film version that is fatally halfhearted.”
Who do I side with? Well, I thought that it was the songs that made the film version of “Hair” worth watching. Without them, as I wrote in my review, it’s a pretty uneven narrative that can be awfully slow at times. So Vincent Canby and I have a difference of opinion there, and we do here as well.
In fact, I think that “A Chorus Line” is a better film than “Hair.”
Yes, without the immediacy of theater—the captive audience and the energy that charges a live performance when everyone in the cast is “on” and the moment seems to transcend the stage—there ARE times in “A Chorus Line” when the film drags a bit or experiences a letdown. That is, there are times when production numbers end and the cutaways to the demanding choreographer (Michael Douglas) watching and directing it all begin to grow slightly tedious. But a side plot involving a former romantic interest (Alyson Reed) helps to add interest to such scenes.
Douglas may have the bigger part, but it’s Terrence Mann who serves as his onstage director and demonstrator of dance steps, and he adds energy and extra interest to the proceedings. Mann’s character’s reaction shots add texture to the various songs and dances that each of the Broadway hopefuls launch into.
Make no mistake: while “A Chorus Line” is designed to reveal character through a minimalist plot, it’s still a collection of songs strung together that provides the real skeletal structure. And those songs vary considerably in style.
Charles McGowan performs an energetic, post-Vaudevillian song-and-dance, “I Can Do That,” which will remind film fans of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘em Laugh” routine from “Singin’ in the Rain.” Vicki Frederick, Michelle Johnston, and Pam Klinger sing a wispy idealized version of “At the Ballet,” while Alyson Reed sings the ballad “What I Did for Love.” Then, of course, there’s that famous song about “tits and ass” that the kiddies won’t be able to watch (and an F-word), though “A Chorus Line” is rated PG-13.
The strong musical links are the soloists and their routines; the weak links are the cast choruses of what function as recitatives, in which they sing or chant variations of “I Hope I Get It.”
But over the course of this 113-minute audition we come to know enough about the dancers to form opinions about them, to pull for some of them to finally make it. Age is a factor, as is experience, and “look,” and dancing prowess, the ability to learn steps quickly (as in MERE SECONDS), singing talent, and how successfully they’re able to communicate who they really are as people—as individuals. It’s a melting pot of talent that stirs Jews, Puerto Ricans, gays, newbies, old-timers, blacks, big-timers and small-towners into a bubbling social commentary, so it’s not all about dance. It’s about the various people who feel they MUST dance.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy “A Chorus Line” will depend on how much you enjoy the songs and performances themselves, and whether you’re able to get enough out of the audition process to compensate for the sometimes tedious cutaways to the choreographer. For me, the film falls somewhere between a 6 and a 7 on the Movie Met scale, but I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt because of the dancing and musical numbers.
“A Chorus Line” looks sparkling in HD, which is especially noticeable in the glitzy, shimmering finale in which all the performers take the stage again for the musical’s most famous number. There’s just enough filmic grain to appease the videophiles, but enough gloss to satisfy those who buy Blu-rays to see sharper and more breathtaking visuals. Plus, I didn’t see any issues with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc (34 MBPS). “A Chorus Line” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 2.0, which is actually better than it sounds. You’d think a 2.0 couldn’t do much to impress, but this theater-style audio lends a nice heft to the songs and pushes the sound well into the room. I wouldn’t call the whole experience AS immersive as a 5.1 or 7.1 mix, but it’s surprisingly close. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Alas, the only bonus feature is the original theatrical trailer. The studio couldn’t even be bothered to port over a short feature on Marvin Hamlisch that appeared on an earlier DVD release.
Despite the slowdowns, the film adaptation of “A Chorus Line” is both entertaining and illuminating. “A Chorus Line” will certainly give people who think they want a career in dance some idea of whether they’re up to the challenge. And the rest of the audience will never look at a musical chorus line the same way.