Thursday, January 12, 2012

Underrated Movie #145: Every Little Step

Title: Every Little Step
Year: 2008
Directors: Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern
Stars: Bob Avian, Marvin Hamlisch, Baayork Lee, Jay Binder

The Story: A fascinating and suspenseful documentary about the casting process for the 2005 revival of “A Chorus Line” on Broadway that, like the musical, quickly becomes about so much more: the economy, the American Dream, the creative life, and the existential dilemmas that everyone has to face.

How it Came to be Underrated: This had a brief run here in New York where it was popular with Broadway fans, but it hasn’t yet pulled off the crossover appeal of the original show, reaching a broader audience who will discover that there’s more here than meets the eye. This is one of the best documentaries of the last ten years and I cannot recommend it enough. 

Why It’s Great:
  1. When the movie begins, our sympathy is totally with the actors, and we take offense at the indignity of the whole process. But then, as so often happens in stories, our sympathies begin to creep upward towards the bosses. The turning point comes when the casting directors have to listen to thirty different Maggies blow the high note on “At the Ballet.” Suddenly, all you care about is their suffering. In the end, despite the fact that they started with 3000 wildly talented hopefuls for 20 parts, you actually begin to worry that the casting directors won’t find anybody good enough.
  2. One thing that makes the process especially tough for both sides is that these characters all describe their own body type, so even more than usual, the actors have a fatalistic sense that they’ll be judged more on “look” than acting ability. But then we get to the most amazing moment in the movie: An unassuming Asian guy named Jason Tam gets up to read for a white role and he goes so deep into the monologue that he begins to weep, and then everybody watching this movie begins to weep, and then even the casting directors, who have been listening to this same monologue over and over all damn day (and for the last 30 years), begin to weep! Suddenly, nobody could care less that he doesn’t have the right look. That’s an audition.
  3. The editing is breathtaking. It’s the ultimate post-modern nesting doll of a movie, with six overlaid parallel stories: the original, desperate life stories of a group of dancers, the versions of their stories that they put on tape one night in 1975, the original Broadway musical they created from those tapes, the revival being mounting in 2005, and the real stories we’re seeing onscreen of all the dancers trying out to star in that revival. And yet all of these are the same story: we see our auditioners tell the camera how badly they need this show, then we see them audition by singing songs about how badly they need the show within the show…
  4. …It could have been a navel-gazing mess, but it works for the same reason that “A Chorus Line” works, because none of this is really about dance. It’s about the most universal dilemma or all: individuality vs. solidarity. As Frank Rich points out in the special features, the existential power of the show comes from the fact that none of these characters is even trying out for a once-of-a-lifetime role that’s going to make them a star: their goal is to be allowed to melt into an anonymous, homogenous, background chorus line. But in order to earn the right to melt away, they need to prove that they’ve become the most extraordinary individual they can be.
  5. The ending was a little anti-climactic for Betsy and me, because we had seen the amazing revival on Broadway so we already knew who was going to get each role, but that also added another level of poignancy because we knew that, despite glowing reviews and strong sales for the first year, the show had already closed by the time the movie opened.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another recent documentary in the same vein was Stage Door, about a camp for theater kids, which has one of the most heartbreaking endings of any doc I’ve seen. Another great doc from around this time about a competition with larger metaphorical meaning was Spellbound.

How Available Is It?: But wait, we still have one more meta-layer: the DVD commentary, which is fun, as are the deleted scenes and various interviews.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Reflecting --And How!


Jillian Schmidt said...

I love A Chorus Line but somehow didn't know that this documentary existed. Meta on top of meta - I love it! Thanks so much for featuring it.

Unknown said...

I saw this documentary when it was in the theaters and was fascinated by it. There were also some unexpected connections -- until I saw this film, I didn't realize that Charlotte D'Amboise (auditioning for Cassie) is the daughter of the great dancer Jacques D'Amboise (who was the subject of his own documentary, "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'"). And Tyce Diorio, shown auditioning, now provides judging and choreography for "So You Think You Can Dance." And the beat goes on...

Betty (Beth) said...

Great film. I saw this last year on Netflix and went to watch it again recently only to find they had made it only available on DVD.

I think I may have to buy that DVD. :-)