Little Steps to Mediocrity

Every_little_step

The expectation going into Every Little Step, James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s documentary about the musical A Chorus Line, is that we’re going to get a documentary that chronicles this beloved musical, from its origins to its reaching a place in the American pop culture zeitgeist in the mid-1970s to its 2006 revival. That much is promised in its synopsis: “Every Little Step explores the incredible journey of A Chorus Line from ambitious idea to international phenomenon.”

But Every Little Step, which opens in New York on April 17, never delivers. Instead, we’re presented with a far-too-insider view into how the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line came together with some lip service paid to choreographer/director Michael Bennett’s creation of the musical and his background in dance and theater. And what’s worse is that the film ends up feeling more like an extended reality show, a la American Idol or Grease: You’re the One That I Want rather than a probing cinematic documentary.

This is a bitter pill to swallow because the film begins with such promise. The first sounds we hear are the clicking on of an old reel-to-reel audio recorder and Bennett’s voice welcoming a group of people to a meeting of other dancers and actors. This tape -- and 12 hours of others like it -- is what led to A Chorus Line. (The musical is based on real conversations Bennett had with dancers about their lives and complications, and it debuted on Broadway in 1975.) After the tapes, we’re taken to an open casting call for the revival, before getting back into the tapes and present-day interviews with the people behind the making of the original production. By presenting these tapes, which are rarely heard, up front as a sort of narrative glue, Stern and Del Deo start off promisingly enough. What better way to navigate the journey of A Chorus Line than with the journey’s beginnings?

Unfortunately, Stern and Del Deo are either not skilled enough documentarians or they simply lost interest in the journey because as Every Little Step progresses, we get more and more of the casting of the revival and less and less about the original production.

It’s easy to see Stern and Del Deo’s directorial impulse: A Chorus Line is about an audition, so let’s document the auditions for the revival of the musical about an audition! Parallel storytelling is all well and good, but this approach for Every Little Step relegates A Chorus Line to a gross oversimplification. The musical isn’t just about an audition; the audition is the skeleton on which the drama of these dancer’s lives is hung. By reducing the musical to a simple show about a show, you diminish the emotional resonance Bennett was able to accomplish with his theater verité.

By the same token, if you create a documentary about a complex show based on an oversimplification of that show, the documentary itself will suffer from oversimplification. And that’s exactly what happens with Every Little Step. We meet a couple of the people auditioning for roles in the revival, but we never really get to know them. We get a little bit about what went into making the original production, but then around the halfway point the show’s origins are roundly ignored. We’re presented with interviews from people involved in both the original and revival productions where we hear how amazing and important the show is, but we’re never given a reason why. The film begins as a loving exploration of a show Stern and Del Deo both obviously hold dear, but it ends limply (and abruptly) as a “Let’s put on a show!” type of reality TV confection.

This is endlessly frustrating. A Chorus Line is regarded as one of the great moments in 20th century American popular culture. The 2006 revival was, apparently, a pretty big deal; at least, that’s what I heard when I saw it in January 2007. But if you’re watching Every Little Step as one of the uninitiated, you’re no closer to understanding why any of that happened or, worse, matters than when you walked into the theater. And even if you do know something of the show’s history you’re left with little in the way of new insight. Stern and Del Deo not only make a lot of contradictory assumptions about their audience—They’re insiders! They’re outsiders!—they also make a lot of contradictory choices as directors. In the end, they can’t make the simplest, most necessary choices as documentarians: What is our subject, how are we presenting it, and why does any of it matter?

While A Chorus Line wasn’t my cup of tea, it certainly deserves better than this shoddy treatment. The show won Tony awards and a Pulitzer. Actors, singers, and dancers revere the show. People who saw the original production swear by it, and it holds a special place in their cultural makeup. Very little, if any, of this information is presented in the film. And while that’s maddening, it’s nothing compared to the shoddy way Bennett, the creator of A Chorus Line, is handled.

Throughout the film, the people who are interviewed speak of Bennett in otherworldly terms. This is appropriate since he is conjured like a spirit by Stern and Del Deo rather than given a fleshed-out examination. We hear his voice on those original tapes, we see archival images and footage of him dancing, and we see old television interviews. But these come in spurts, and by the halfway point he’s gone. He reappears at the very end in voiceover just before we get a title card telling us he’s deceased.

In the end, this treatment is an awful microcosm of Every Little Step. I’m convinced that Stern and Del Deo mean well. But I don’t know why. I don’t know any more about A Chorus Line than I did when I walked into the theater. And I don’t know if the subject is supposed to be a chronicle of how A Chorus Line went from idea to phenomenon or a document about the casting of the revival? In the end, these questions are too fundamental and too many for the film to overcome.