I'll be honest. I didn't think the premise of “Every Little Step” seemed very promising. A bunch of dancers audition for parts in an old Broadway show about … dancers? I saw the movie only because we have a project with one of its producers. I was truly surprised.
I don't say this lightly: It's my favorite documentary this year.
There's something incredibly BARE about the hope all the actors bring to it. I teared up over and over. (And it's suspenseful. I truly cared who would get in the show, which I definitely didn't expect.)
There were about a thousand ways to do this film horribly, cloyingly, reverently, annoyingly. What's more annoying than hearing performers talk about performing, and especially about their dreams of performing? “Every Little Step” evades all that. The film's empathetic without being sentimental. The editors keep the story moving. They choose well when to linger on characters and moments, but digress interestingly, too, when it's called for.
And as someone who makes documentaries for a living, I loved being reminded that the original musical "A Chorus Line" was itself a kind of documentary, built out of interviews choreographer Michael Bennett did with Broadway dancers. We hear the original tapes in this film, and see how they were slowly, agonizingly, turned into songs and scenes. Anyone who makes documentaries will appreciate the drama of the original team of writers figuring out they can't just go down the line one character at a time, each dancer telling his or her story. You'd get to the fifth person and think, "there's ten more of these people? Oy!"
By coincidence, I'd been dragged years ago to the 2006 revival of “A Chorus Line” that they're casting in “Every Little Step.” I wasn't so keen on it. OK, I hated it. It seemed horribly dated. Antique. Lines that'd been shocking back in the 1970s when they were written — or startlingly frank and new — didn't have any punch at all. Think of the lyrics about plastic surgery ("Tits and Ass") or the memoirish stories of gay men coming to New York. That stuff's been done on episodic TV at this point.
But “Every Little Step” didn't have that problem, because we're seeing contemporary wannabe stars, not 1970s ones, and their drama of wanting to get into a show and having their hopes dashed or fulfilled is immediate and heartfelt.
Which is to say: “Every Little Step” is a better revival of the original musical than the revival it's documenting. It has all the feeling the old play had back in the day, with the same plot of course, and the same songs, but all new, all fresh, all alive, all over again.
This is the kind of film that's often passed over by Oscar voters for the same reason I nearly didn't see it. At first glance, it doesn't seem to be taking on a serious issue, or telling an important story. It's an entertainment. I think all of us who do documentaries gravitate toward the big heavy subjects when we think about what should get awards. But “Every Little Step” does what a great movie does: it involves you and makes you care and by the end, what it's about doesn't seem small at all.