A Chorus Line Blu-ray Review: A Pale Imitation of the Stage Show ... and of a Passable Movie

A successful film adaptation of "A Chorus Line" was possible. This is not that film.
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The Film

A Chorus Line isn’t merely a terrible adaptation; it’s a downright awful movie regardless of its source material’s pedigree. The Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 stage musical can be clunky and over-earnest in parts, but mostly, it’s a moving look at the compulsion to be an artist. Made a decade later, the movie jettisons most of that art mumbo-jumbo in favor of pumping up a breathless romantic subplot and subs out some of the musical’s most charming songs for a couple of atrocious synthy numbers.

Director Richard Attenborough, that frequently acknowledged titan of musical theater, shoots the film’s numbers with all the panache of an exercise video. The editing by John Bloom, somehow nominated for an Oscar, favors frenetic pacing above sense, and mostly obliterates any of the achievements of the cast, many of them actual dancers.

Director and choreographer Zach, mostly an unseen presence in the stage show as he auditions 16 Broadway hopefuls for a spot in the chorus, is here played by Michael Douglas in a performance that mostly consists of dismissive looks and nods of either approval or disapproval toward one of his assistants. The acting of overemphasized gestures - how compelling!

Most of the dancers’ stories and songs have been truncated or cut altogether in favor of increasing the role of Cassie (Alyson Reed), an aging dancer and Zach’s former lover. Seemingly self-parodying flashback sequences recall their passionate fling, fueled by their mutual love of dance. Written for the film by original composer Marvin Hamlisch, “Let Me Dance for You” has to be one of the worst things he ever did, combining boneheaded lyrics and unrestrained saxophone work, viewed through the emotional lens of a pubescent girl.

Even worse - Attenborough completely upends the meaning of penultimate number “What I Did for Love,” changing it from the ensemble’s song to Cassie’s. In the stage version, the company members sing about their dedication to their craft; in the film, it’s just another sappy paean to a romance that didn’t work out. The film’s other original song - the Oscar-nominated “Surprise, Surprise” - is pretty forgettable, but at least it provides a nice showcase for the athletic dancing talents of Gregg Burge.

A Chorus Line is a painful experience, particularly if you have any fondness for the original show. The show’s simplicity of concept allowed for a stripped-down or highly embellished cinematic adaptation - either could’ve worked under the guidance of the right director. Instead, we get a willful misunderstanding of the show’s core theme, wrapped up in an ugly visual package.

The Blu-ray Disc

A Chorus Line is presented in 1080p high definition and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I can’t imagine anyone was really clamoring for a high-def upgrade of this title, but the transfer we get is pretty strong nonetheless. Fine detail is visible throughout, flesh tones are very natural and the film’s grain structure remains visible, clean and unaltered. Colors are a little muted, but look true. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty dynamic, although the separation between music and vocals can sound a little lopsided at points.

Special Features

Just the theatrical trailer.

The Bottom Line

I’m not sure I’ve expressed my vitriol toward this film adequately. Instead of watching this, find a community theater production of A Chorus Line or watch the opening sequence of All That Jazz and see what Attenborough was hopelessly trying to emulate or go sit silently in a dark room for two hours.

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