Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
A CHORUS LINE (1985)
So here’s the deal: A Chorus Line is a fascinating concept for a musical, and knowing nothing going in, it was a great surprise to figure out the gimmick. But after about 40 minutes… they kinda blew it. They just couldn’t keep a fantastic idea afloat. Am I being vague enough? Just what is so unique about A Chorus Line? Go watch it if you give a shit. The rest of you, come with me, because holy crap…
…A Chorus Line is a musical that takes place almost entirely in real time, in one location.
That’s pretty cool, right? A choreographer known only as Zach (Michael Douglas) is holding an audition for a new Broadway show. A line of dancers out the door is whittled down to 200, then 100, then 50, until we’re left with a handful of hopefuls that Zach interviews one by one in order to build the perfect chorus line.
Not sure why he has each one of them step forward and say,
“Hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker,” but I’m no choreographer.
There’s just one problem: a bunch of people standing around telling—well, singing their life stories isn’t terribly cinematic. Also, there’s eighteen of them, so we only have time for a paragraph of each dancer’s autobiography before we move on to the next character we won’t form any attachment to. The most intriguing part of the movie is when a woman named Cassie (Alyson Reed) shows up to visit with Zach and they clearly have a history. Too bad that one interesting relationship keeps getting interrupted by spotlight hogs flipping around the stage.
The fuck is this? Go back to why Michael Douglas is mad at that lady!
So, your two basic reveals are “Who gets the gig?” and “What’s up with Zach and Cassie?” I don’t particularly care about the first question and the second could be covered in fifteen minutes if all these showoffs weren’t singing about their shitty childhoods. I guess they try to infuse it with a message of “ain’t showbiz a bitch,” but bottom line, this is one of the loosest story structures I’ve ever seen in a musical.
This is a movie made almost entirely of bit parts, so I can only judge the performances based on ten minutes, tops. And most of those minutes are spent singing and dancing while barely interacting with the other characters on the stage. On top of that, our “protagonist” Zach is in the dark half the time, because this movie wants to hide as much acting as possible.
He’ll get you next time, Gadget.
So, Michael Douglas as Zach; what sort of character is he? Well, he yells at the dancers to stop the self-aggrandizement and just have natural conversations, and he’s a bit of a perfectionist, and he kinda cares about Cassie, and… yeah, that’s all I got between the constant singing. (Also, he never sings himself, booooo!) Alyson Reed, meanwhile, packs a lot into Cassie, especially her desperation for a job and her need to separate her professional and personal relationships with Zach. She is the queen of Intense Face.
Oh my goodness, what do you need, honey?
And then… all the dancers. Do I need to go through them all individually when they have such small roles? Should I just tell you the ones I really liked? I mean, Vicki Frederick is great as an older dancer named Sheila, and Cameron English has—fuck it, they all get a song, I’ll just talk about them in the next section.
Though Terrence Mann kicks ass as Larry the assistant choreographer.
“Are you all gonna sing a song? Jesus, I have dinner plans.”
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
After an insane and intense group elimination dance that seems to go on forever (and it wouldn’t be bad if it did), we’re thrown into “I Hope I Get It,” the collected desperate thoughts of our auditioning dancers. It’s not too memorable aside from the chorus and there are huge stretches of interrupting dialogue, but it’s a good opener.
“Hey! You in the back doing the singing! Shut up, you’re eliminated!”
And then… one of the dancers gets his own song before they all line up. Okay… guess he’s gonna be a main character or something? His name is Paul (Cameron English) and he sings the existential “Who Am I Anyway?” into a mirror. In a bit of a neat cinematic twist, however, his reflection doesn’t sing back, for he is vampyr.
Burn him in a cleansing fire of dance!
Once they’re all in a row for Zach, the one named Mike (Charles McGowan) is the first to tell his story of how he got into dancing, and the answer is that his sis went to classes and he figured he could do it too. “I Can Do That” is absolutely the “Make ‘Em Laugh” of this movie, with Mike running and rolling and slapsticking across the stage while somebody mashes all the buttons on the cartoon sound effects board. It’s fun as hell and definitely My Favorite Song From A Chorus Line That Doesn’t Mention Breasts.
Then we knock out three characters in one go with “At the Ballet,” in which Sheila (Vicki Frederick), Bebe (Michelle Johnston), and Maggie (Pam Klinger) inform us that the happiest moment in each of their troubled youths was attending the ballet. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet song and shut up, I’m not crying, it’s only one tear and it’s just getting started.
Keep the lights low. *sniffle*
Then everybody starts talking about boning and how horrible their first time was, except Richie (Gregg Burge) whose introduction to crotch jostling apparently fucking ruled. “Surprise, Surprise” is surprisingly not that interesting for a song about sex, and I love songs about sex.
And this still isn’t the one about boobs!
Hey, ever taken an acting class? Well, they’re goddamned annoying, and that feeling is captured perfectly in “Nothing,” performed by Diana (Yamil Borges). The melody isn’t too exciting, but the lyrics are all about stupid acting exercises and getting chastised by a shitty teacher and they cut me deep.
“I ain’t Yes Anding shit!”
And then, a glorious song about tits and ass with a chorus of “Tits! And ass!” that’s titled, obviously, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” Seriously, fuck that, this song is called “Tits and Ass” and it’s a burlesque-esque ode to plastic surgery that is the bounciest bubbliest best. Nicely done, What’s-Her-Name (Somebody).
Caption goes here.
When everybody goes on break, Cassie sneaks out and fucking brings it in “Let Me Dance for You.” She dances a tear in the fabric of time and space trying to win Zach’s approval, begging for a chance in his show like her life depends on it. It’s gorgeous and intense and amazing.
Holy god, bodies can do that??
The number “One” is performed twice in the movie by the whole ensemble, and is the only song I was previously familiar with. The second performance is a time jump that shows off who made the cut, but that’s really not as captivating as the initial practice version, which has the dancers calling out the steps in time over the lyrics as the music devolves into a cacophony of sound. It’s mesmerizing and haunting and sort of drives home just how maddening dance rehearsals can be.
Not just crazy, but low angle, harsh light crazy.
Sandwiched in between the “One”s is “What I Did For Love,” and to be perfectly honest, I was so bored that I missed what exactly Cassie did for love. Wait right here while I watch the whole song over again.
Eh, still don’t know.
Last song, I’m out!
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
While “Surprise, Surprise” has a gross bit about milky discharge, it’s more of a line of dialogue in the middle of the song, so this week’s nominee for the Headscratchiest Lyric goes to “Nothing” for this description of trying to nail a goofy acting exercise that is both hilarious out of context and belted out passionately as fuck…
“So I dug right down to the bottom of my soul,
To see how an ice cream felt…”
If you wish Fame condensed four years into two hours and none of the characters were as interesting or had meaningful interactions with each other, then A Chorus Line is the film for you! Okay, that’s a little harsh, plus the songs are all pretty killer. I see A Chorus Line as an experiment that didn’t quite work, but I’m glad somebody tried it. Maybe the Broadway version gets it right, but the movie just doesn’t seem to know what to do with all these characters, try as it might to keep the same old stage engaging. I’m glad I watched it, and I might even watch it again, but it’s not a must-see.