As I see it, there are three major problems with the film version of A Chorus Line. First, before one foot of film was exposed, before one person actually working on the movie was paid, A Chorus Line cost $10 million, due to a variety of unwise deals made during past attempts to get this picture off the ground. Second, the filmmakers had no faith in the original vision of the play. Third, the wrong director was chosen. There are other minor problems with A Chorus Line, but these three caused the greatest difficulties.
When you go into pre-production on a film having spent $10 million, and you know that, generally speaking, a film must gross two-and-one half times its negative costs before it shows a profit, then there is likely to be little enthusiasm for spending big bucks. This film cost $20 million, but only $10 million of that is on screen. Sounds like a lot of money, still, but $5 million is just about the minimum amount of money a studio can make a film for nowadays. $10 million is an average budget. For this kind of money, you have to shoot pretty fast.
Musicals are notorious for their costs. While A Chorus Line doesn't require elaborate sets or costumes, the time and effort required to produce really first class dance numbers weren't possible under the film's budget. I suspect that this is part of the reason that A Chorus Line rarely shows us an entire dance number. They probably couldn't afford to shoot most of them right, so only the best bits and pieces show up on the screen, with cuts to the patched-in story or reaction shots filling the gaps.
Which brings us to the second problem. David O. Selznick, who was probably the most successful transcriber of good books into good films, said that, when adapting a beloved work to a film, the audience would understand if you had to leave things out, but had little tolerance for things changed and less for things added. Selznick should be required reading for those lacking original ideas for screenplays. On stage, A Chorus Line consisted of the revelations of several dancers auditioning for a show. The scene never left the stage, the time never left the present. A Chorus Line was about dancers and how they became what they are, their problems, their joys. A Chorus Line, in film form, tries to keep this focus, but also introduces an extraneous love story.
This love story was present in the musical, but was background, not foreground. In the film, we are constantly cutting to footage concerning the romance, leaving a dancer on stage in the middle of spilling his guts about his deepest fears and insecurities. Since the love story is half-hearted, it cannot replace the intensity lost by cutting from the film's real business. I constantly found myself wishing that they would get back to the dancers. Particularly harmful is the reassignment of A Chorus Line's big song, What I Did For Love, from one of the dancers to one of the principles in the love subplot, completely losing the beauty of the song in the process.
Obviously, the screenwriters had no faith in the concept of focussing for two solid hours on the men and women on stage. Ironically, whenever the film does focus on them, it works. Whenever it leaves, it falls like a souffle in a kitchen next door to the jackhammer operators' convention. If the screenwriters had only had faith . . .
Richard Attenborough was not a good choice to direct. He's English, of course, and the concept of a Broadway chorus line is definitely not English. More importantly, though, Attenborough has a peculiar directorial talent. The more people he crams in a shot, the better he does with it. In Gandhi, in the funeral scene, he had literally hundreds of thousands of extras, and his handling of it is magnificent. But give him two actors and a love scene, and he has no interesting ideas at all. A Chorus Line worked by focussing on individuals, one at a time. Since Attenborough has but little idea what to do with them, particularly in a confined and not very interesting set, he rarely gets the emotional values present in a scene. Give him several dozen dancers kicking in unison, and Attenborough's not bad at all. Give him one desperate actor revealing his innermost secrets and Attenborough is boring.
This puts him at odds with Jeffrey Hornaday, the choreographer for the film. Hornaday, who choreographed Flashdance, has a way with one dancer, but is woefully lacking in imagination when it comes to ensembles. Thus, Attenborough gives us poorly conceived shots of fine solos and dazzling shots of mediocre group work.
None of the actors stand out, as actors, and only Gregg Burge stands out as a dancer, in a new number called Surprise! Surprise! Michael Douglas is typically phlegmatic as Zack, the director of the show, which would have been OK if he hadn't been required to hold up half of the love story, as well. Alyson Reed does nothing worthy of note as Cassie, a part which made Donna McKechnie a star on the basis of a single number. She isn't very pretty, she can't act very well, and she isn't an exciting dancer. Though the part has been considerably expanded, it certainly won't make Reed a star. The rest of the chorus line is filled with pretty boys and pretty girls who we don't really get to know.
A Chorus Line is about one-third good. The best scenes are in the opening sequences, where masses of dancers are being auditioned. There are a few moments of flash elsewhere, but not enough to save the film. Those who haven't seen the stage version are likely to be more kind with the film than those who have, as its only real crime is that it isn't anywhere near as good as its source. In these days of such paucity of good material, however, that's a pretty serious offense.
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