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DVD SAVANT

A Chorus Line


A Chorus Line
MGM Home Entertainment
1985 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 113 min. / Street Date 2003 / $14.95
Starring Michael Douglas, Alyson Reed, Vicki Frederick, Cameron English, Yamil Borges, Gregg Burge, Audrey Landers, Pam Klinger, Blane Savage, Michael Blevins, Jan Gan Boyd, Sharon Brown, Janet Jones, Michelle Johnston, Terrence Mann, Tony Fields, Nicole Fosse, Charles McGowan, Justin Ross, Matt West, Pat McNamara, and Peter Fitzgerald as 'dancer with gum.'
Cinematography Ronnie Taylor
Production Designer Patrizia von Brandenstein
Art Direction John Dapper
Film Editor John Bloom
Original Music Marvin Hamlisch
Written by Arnold Schulman from the play by Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood Jr.
Produced by Cy Feuer, Ernest H. Martin, Gordon Stulberg
Directed by Richard Attenborough

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An acceptable screen version of the hit Michael Bennett Broadway play, that came out about 5 years too late to find its peak audience, A Chorus Line suffers a bit on film for the same reasons it was a shoo-in on the stage. The behind-the-scenes dissection of the lives of ambitious chorus dancers, who struggle through exhausting, humiliating rehearsals only to suffer endless rejection, may be analytically progressive, but the basic 'we're making a show here' attitude hasn't changed since Warner Baxter harangued his mob of showgirls in 1932's 42nd Street.

Synopsis:

A broadway theater holds dance auditions for the 8 - person chorus line of an unspecified musical, with director Zach (Michael Douglas) and his assistant Larry (Terrence Mann) herding hundreds of hopefuls in and out. Soon the number is reduced to sixteen, and Zach interviews them to determine who stays and who goes. They're a mixed bunch, whose stories form a cumulative picture of the insecure and hopeful world of the stage hoofer, and Zach has to sort out the relative merits of the inexperienced versus the jaded, the proud and the merely boastful. Added to the mix is the sudden appearance of his old girlfriend Cassie (Alyson Reed), a failed movie actress who inexplicably wants to start again in the chorus, but can't convince Zach she's sincere about it.

Practically the entire play takes place in a basically empty theater, a setting that is so conducive to pinchpenny producers, one would think it was conceived because it wouldn't cost a nickel for special scenery or costumes. Theater patrons might be impressed to think that they're seeing some kind of reality on stage, but when translated to a movie, the whole affair comes off as the kind of cheap gimmick Roger Corman might pull if forced to create a musical. Richard Attenborough's straight-on direction enlivens things to a degree, but the only resource the designers have is to alter the lighting.

Marvin Hamlisch's music apparently filled theaters, but the endless dance routine rhythm pieces wear on one, as director Zach does his paring down of the cattle call hopefuls. The songs are intimate, rousingly put over, yet not very memorable. One Singular Sensation is the supposed showstopper, but the reaction now is kind of a, "Oh yeah, that was the one that actually made it to radio."

The casting is notably non-Hollywood, except for Michael Douglas, who attracted nothing but scorn for his starring role. But he's fine, and to these eyes, he doesn't unbalance things.

There's certainly some good dancing in the show. It's mostly choreographed around the individuals as they show off during their separate turns in the spotlight. That's another reason this play got produced - every one of 19 roles gets his or her turn to be the star, if only for a couple of minutes.

Zach's process of elimination with his 16 hopefuls seeks to get to the truth behind each character, and lo and behold, we're given that truth. Sometimes the individuals come right out with it, and with others, he has to drag it out. As with an EST confession session, we have gay guys explaining when they knew they were gay, and women who explain how they came to terms with their own sexuality. A not particularly clever song called Tits and Ass is supposed to be the amusing tale of a plain Jane who learns how to get men excited about her by having her face and body rebuilt by plastic surgeons. Her soulless gusto is well-received by the director.

The wild card in the cast is a 17th person, a gate crasher who gets special privileges because she's an ex-lover of the director. But she represents, we have to conclude, the true spirit of Broadway - coming back to fight her way back up once again, starting in the chorus after being a star. Even with a series of inexpressive flashbacks to their earlier relationship, her subplot's no less klunky than the corny show-biz baloney of The Boy Friend or a goldiggers movie. The 1976 buzz about the play being revolutionary doesn't ring true.

The big elimination at the end almost redeems the show. It's realistically cruel, especially the surprise Zach pulls on who stays and who has to leave, after he asks eight of his hopefuls to step forward. Zach rejects the confidently experienced and those with a personal connection, presumably because they would resist his attempts to mold them to his needs, or use their prior association when he wants to be some untouchable authority. The exception is, of course, the dancer with the too-personal connection - the only one who has trouble with her footwork. The spunkiest, most assertive woman stays, but another minority representative is excused. The sexpot with the manufactured body is kept, either because her trampy directness will contribute to the soul of the show, or because Zach will be interested in her company later on. Since all sixteen are excellent dancers, Zach's yea or nay is a definite personal acceptance or rejection. The quiet and accepting way the losers exit is very interesting ... the play seems to authorize the director's unchallenged role as God in this kingdom.  1

When the picture finally changes to a stage full of golden dancers going through a dull routine to a reprise of the 'big hit song', I think we're supposed to be impressed that all this heartache and sweat is what goes into a real, honest to goodness Broadway Musical. I have to admit that after A Chorus Line, I was ready to see one.


MGM's DVD of A Chorus Line is handsomely transferred in a Panavision aspect ratio. It's a high quality disc at a bargain price. The film premiered in 70mm, but chances are that since then even its makers haven't seen it except on pan'n scan VHS tapes. There's a trailer, and subs in English, Spanish and French. Marvin Hamlisch tells the story behind the play from his point of view in an interview-documentary "Marvin Hamlisch From Broadway to Hollywood".


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Chorus Line rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview documentary with Marvin Hamlisch, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 14, 2003


Footnote:

1. A good way to look at this picture is as an 80s critique, like Douglas' Wall Street. A Chorus Line works for a feeling of universality - that the ambitions and desperation of these hopefuls is just a more intense version of the forces that shape our little, non-theatrical lives in the real world. Anyone who works in a large company can certainly see Zach's manipulative & authoritarian probing of his captives, to be the same kind of demeaning treatment an employee in a corporation receives. "This is your job performance evaluation, but I want you to be candid. Tell me how you really feel about the company. Hmm hmm. Is that all you have to say?"
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