The venerable, awards-laden Broadway musical A Chorus Line was already adapted into a famously terrible film by Richard Attenborough in 1985; we've had to wait for the recent documentary Every Little Step by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo to get a cinematic treatment of the material that actually gets to the heart of why the thing worked in the first place. And I say that as one who's never been entirely convinced of the conventional wisdom that the thing did work in the first place, which means that for my money, Every Little Step is actually the first time that the story has ever been completely successful anywhere.

A Chorus Line was developed in the mid-'70s by director/choreographer Michael Bennett from a series of long recorded sessions he held discussing life and the theater with a group of barely-employed Broadway dancers. Written by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, with lyrics by Edward Kleban and music by Marvin Hamlisch, the show was a tribute to the hundreds of hopeful performers who spent their existence hoping to land just one part in the background of some show, doomed to never achieve stardom, but simply to spend a little bit of time dancing their hearts out onstage. The point being, of course, that these people, though not as famous as the headliners, still had passions and rich lives, and their stories deserved the telling as much as anyone.

The original production ran for a gobsmacking 15 years, ending in 1990. Every Little Step is the story of the revival that opened in 2006, although it includes generous amounts of footage from the time of the original production, and recaps in fairly satisfying detail the history of how the show came into existence. But far more of the films is given over to that terrible nightmare known as the casting process, from the first moments of the open call, all the way to the lucky men and women who made it to opening night, a group of 17 persons culled from over 3000 in bits and pieces over a nerve-wracking eight-months.

In this, Every Little Step is an unusually meta documentary: it is about how hopeful souls were slowly weeded out to play onstage, a group of hopeful souls weeded out to perform onstage. This is a quality inherent to A Chorus Line in the first place, of course, that its creation should mirror its narrative, and one of the things that vaguely bothers me about the show is that it doesn't see fit to foreground, or really even acknowledge that fact. But these are not issues best brought up in this review. The film, in essence, is a document of how people are chosen for the honor of appearing in a Broadway show, and the fact that the show in question is also that same kind of document is a convenience.

It's worth pointing out, that we live in a world where the wrangling involved in getting 3000 people cut down to 17 isn't a completely arcane process; it's the basis for American Idol, the most popular television series in the United States, which I'm afraid means that on any given week, more people are watching a heavily-bastardised version of the casting process than have encountered any version of A Chorus Line in the more than 30 years of existence. God knows that AI and Every Little Step aren't really trying to fill the same niche, but it's hard to avoid noticing that the film tends to paint the figures it ends up focusing the most time on in the same broad colors that most reality TV shows do; the same broad colors that A Chorus Line actually traffics in, for that matter, and one of the biggest problems with Every Little Step on a conceptual level is that the real-life people are generally defined as being quite like whatever character in the show they're trying to play.

This quibbling aside, Every Little Step is a marvelous procedural. That's the only word I can think of to describe it, really. Ultimately, our point of view is never with the various dancers auditioning, but with the panel responsible for choosing among them: director Bob Avian, Hamlisch, Baayork Lee (a member of the original cast), and a handful of others. We stand over their shoulders, as it were, watching them make the hard decisions and agonizing when they can't find anyone who really fits the role properly. This reaches a sort of absurd peak near the end, when one actress who absolutely killed in the first auditions can't quite find the same place during the final callbacks; the way the film is structured, we don't so much feel sympathy with her as share in the producers' disappointment that she's not as good as she used to be.

The film's insider view of the casting process is a bit like watching sausages getting made, but it's fascinating. Because of the multi-tiered structure - tying us to the producers trying their hardest to make certain that Bennett's original vision is honored, and also to the dozens of young actors who we see in snips and snatches, and whose personal anonymity turns them into a collective Spirit of Unemployed Broadway - Every Little Step provides what seems to be a definitive picture of how people end up in shows, made from the trenches for people who have no idea what casting looks like - and in this, too, it seems a bit more appealing to me than the insider-friendly A Chorus Line always felt. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't tell a story that's brand new, particularly given the decades-old history of backstage movies, but it still tells the story well.