Just because a Broadway show runs for more than 6,000 performances and is one of the rare musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama doesn't mean it will make a good movie...or even a decent one. 'A Chorus Line' became a stage sensation shortly after it opened in 1975 (I feel privileged to have seen it during its first year), won nine Tony Awards, and for a while held the record as the longest running Broadway musical in history. Yet such monumental success didn't translate to the screen. Director Richard Attenborough's anemic adaptation fails miserably in its attempt to evoke the passion and grit that distinguished the original production. A weak cast, clunky script, dull presentation, and too many unnecessary changes sabotage the film at every turn, inducing cringes instead of inspiring applause. What should be an energetic, exhilarating love letter to performing ends up a plodding, sentimental mess of a movie that spends almost as much time trying to fix a dysfunctional relationship as it does singing, dancing, and celebrating theatrical art and dedication. Though 'A Chorus Line' didn't single-handedly kill the movie musical in the mid-1980s, it certainly contributed greatly to its decline.
After the phenomenal success of 'Flashdance' and 'Footloose,' the musical genre enjoyed a mini-renaissance, and 'A Chorus Line' tried to ride that popular wave. Yet unfortunately, Attenborough and his creative team made the fatal mistake of molding the show to fit the current day's trends and tastes, instead of faithfully presenting the material in a timeless manner. The result is a hopelessly dated film that's sooooooo 1980s. The heavily synthesized orchestrations are enough to send you screaming from the room (those weren't in the Broadway original, I can assure you!), and the way many of the actors shout the songs instead of sing them betrays their inexperience and naiveté. 'A Chorus Line' isn't a pop musical, despite its contemporary score, and trying to transform it into one just doesn't work.
The concept of 'A Chorus Line,' the brainchild of the late, great musical genius, Michael Bennett, is simple, yet highly effective and unique. A group of disparate dancers show up for a Broadway audition, and the finalists must endure a grueling on-stage interview session with the show's tough, egomaniacal director (portrayed on stage as an unseen, disembodied voice of God that booms from the theater's loudspeakers), who grills each person about their background, foibles, insecurities, and commitment to their craft. Spunky attitudes, risqué quips, and raw emotion abound, as painful and joyous memories are revealed, along with deeply personal confessions and declarations. After putting them all through the wringer, the director ultimately reveals who makes the cast and who doesn't.
'A Chorus Line' works well on stage, where it belongs, but its single, threadbare set and lack of any visual interest - outside of the performers and glitzy finale - doesn't lend itself to a film adaptation. And though screenwriter Arnold Schulman wisely refrains from "opening up" the piece too much, he does make notable changes and shifts the story's emphasis, much to the movie's detriment. In the stage version, we learn of a prior romantic relationship between one of the dancers, Cassie, and Zach, the director. It's a relatively minor plot point that adds a degree of tension and inspires a dynamite song, 'The Music and the Mirror.' Here, that failed union becomes the film's focal point, taking up way too much time, stealing attention from other, more interesting individual stories, and even - in one of the movie's most audacious moves - altering the meaning of the show's signature tune. 'What I Did for Love' was composed by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban as an anthem about a dancer's commitment, sacrifice, and undying affection for the discipline, but here it's transformed into a selfish, reflective mood piece about moving on after a difficult break-up. That's just wrong.
Other changes include the controversial choice of revealing the identity of Zach, played by Michael Douglas (the film's only bona fide "star"), who does what he can with both an underdeveloped role and badly miscast Cassie (Alyson Reed), who's supposed to be a phenomenal dancer, but looks less skilled than many of the extras who are cut. Douglas and Reed possess little chemistry, and their gooey, dewy-eyed flashback scenes are superfluous at best and painful at worst. Reed is a decent enough actress, but her insufferable character tries our patience (as well as Zach's) and makes it difficult for us to root for her. That doesn't matter so much when Cassie is an equal-opportunity member of a stage ensemble, but it becomes problematic when she's elevated to leading lady status on the screen.
And why monkey with the beloved and acclaimed score? While it's become unfortunately routine for film adaptations to toss out original stage songs in favor of fresh, usually inferior material (often in the hope of snaring an Oscar nomination), the asinine decisions made here rob the show of a couple of classic numbers. 'The Music and the Mirror' was a showstopper on Broadway (and Cassie's big moment), yet it's replaced by the similar sounding and far less effective 'Let Me Dance for You.' Also all but abandoned, except for a few bars, is arguably the show's most exuberant song, 'Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,' a clever, catchy celebration of adolescent agony that's supplanted by the horribly mainstream 'Surprise, Surprise' (which did - unbelievably - receive an Oscar nomination, losing to Lionel Richie's 'Say You, Say Me' from 'White Nights'), which examines the loss of virginity in typical '80s pop song fashion, and seems hopelessly out of place. Thankfully, such established songs as 'At the Ballet,' 'Nothing,' 'Dance Ten, Looks Three,' and 'One' remain (relatively) unscathed, though they're performed with varying degrees of success by the uneven cast.
I didn't much like 'A Chorus Line' when I first saw it back in 1985, and I like it even less almost 30 years later. Aside from seeming dated, the story lacks impact and feels forced, the actors appear self-conscious (who wouldn't when required to spout such horrific dialogue?), and Attenborough's by-the-numbers direction is devoid of panache. (Ironically, Attenborough seems to connect better with an Indian holy man than he does with his fellow thespians.) All of which begs the question: Where's the joy in this supposedly joyous musical? 'A Chorus Line' should exude style, confidence, and a bit of attitude, but only a small smattering of those components find their way onto the screen. And instead of celebrating the art of dance and the magic of musical theater, this version of 'A Chorus Line' ends up trivializing them...and that's a crying shame.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'A Chorus Line' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the movie begins immediately; the menu only can be accessed via remote during playback.
For an almost 30-year-old film, 'A Chorus Line' looks quite good on Blu-ray. MGM's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer shows no signs of wear, sports a natural grain structure that nicely resembles celluloid, and features well-balanced contrast and fine clarity. The New York cityscape shots exude a pleasing crispness, as do the stark theater interiors, despite their inherent lack of visual interest. Deep black levels are on almost constant display, as Douglas sits in the dimly lit auditorium often engulfed by darkness, yet shadow detail is quite strong and crush rarely figures into the equation.
Colors are sparingly used, but the vibrant hues of the ladies' dance leotards spice up the image, and the gold satin tuxedos the chorus dons for the 'One' finale are bright and beautifully saturated. Background elements are clear enough and close-ups are a mixed bag - some pop with sharpness, while others appear a bit soft. Thankfully, no digital hiccups mar the picture, and no enhancements seem to have been applied.
Though far from a knockout, 'A Chorus Line' looks better than many catalogue titles from the same period, and this transfer should certainly please the film's fans.
The biggest delight on the 'A Chorus Line' disc is the high quality audio. While it's surprising MGM didn't fashion a 5.1 mix for this release, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track pumps out enough potent sound with marvelous shadings, fidelity, and depth of tone to fill the room with ease. Stereo separation is superb, with plenty of distinct channel action in both musical and dramatic sequences, which widens the soundscape and increases the audio's impact. Excellent dynamic range handles the bright highs and strong bass frequencies without distortion, and no pops, crackles, or hiss disrupt the track's purity.
The music sounds especially fine, despite the heavy use of overpowering synthesizers, and dialogue and lyrics are always properly prioritized, clear, and easy to comprehend. Though this might not be the optimal mix for a high-kicking musical like 'A Chorus Line,' it more than gets the job done and shouldn't disappoint even the most ardent Broadway aficionado.
The only extra on the disc is the film's original theatrical trailer, which runs a scant two minutes and possesses a distinct '80s vibe.
If you loved the original Broadway version of 'A Chorus Line,' then by all means steer clear of this horrendous film adaptation that sucks the spontaneity, energy, and emotional core out of this classic musical. New, subpar songs, unforgivable deletions, and an expanded storyline do nothing to endear this travesty to audiences, and a weak cast only makes it all seem that much worse. Director Richard Attenborough may know how to make epics, but he has no clue how to helm an intimate musical, and the result is a stilted, trite, poorly conceived and executed production that's hopelessly stuck in an '80s time warp. MGM's Blu-ray presentation features an above-average video transfer, a killer DTS-HD stereo track, but no supplements, save for a meager trailer. Even diehard musicals fans should skip this misguided mess that forever tarnishes one of Broadway's most beloved and acclaimed shows.