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Docurama presents
In the Shadow of the Stars (1991)

"I get really agitated when people say, 'oh, you're in the chorus,' very apologetic, like, 'I'm sorry.' I have nothing to apologize for."
- Chorus Member

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 26, 2006

Director: Allie Light, Irving Saraf

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language)
Run Time: 01h:32m:30s
Release Date: August 30, 2005
UPC: 767685973134
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B-B+ B-

DVD Review

When one thinks of grand opera, usually you think of the stars who play the leads. But nearly every opera also has important chorus parts, and talented singers need to be recruited for these roles. This Oscar-winning documentary takes a look at a group of the anonymous individuals who make up the chorus of the San Francisco Opera, mixing their offstage lives and frank interview segments with onstage footage from numerous operas.

In keeping with the anonymity of the chorus, almost none of the interviewees are ever identified in any way, though two of them manage to work their names into the program. This is an interesting technique that mirrors the way the system works, but it also at least initially distances the viewer from their stories; it's difficult to develop a close association with the nameless. However, as the stories progress through the running time, and we see their lives mirrored in the works they're performing, there is an understanding of their situations that's well conveyed to the audience.

The film starts off clearly differentiating the leads from the supporting cast with an interesting angle: the very different way they are treated by the costumers. It's an intriguing touch of backstage hierarchy that makes its point economically. There are plenty of indelible moments, such as the truck driver who practices (with score in front of him) as he drives down the road, the married couple who sing duets to their utterly unappreciative infant, and the man who escaped tenement life in the Bronx to be a singer.

There's plenty of poignance here too; a black singer complains of the utter lack of interest in casting black men for lead roles, despite the fact that whites regularly use makeup to play ethnic roles. There's an added level of sadness when the chorus members begin to discuss the ravages of AIDS not only amongst their number, but the various people behind the scenes as well. But through it all, the chorus soldiers on, living lives of various degrees of satisfaction, relationships forming and rupturing, but all of them driven by a need to sing. A few of them manage to burst out of the chorus into bit parts or even the lead, but others, sometimes in self-defeating manner, go no further. The chorus thus becomes a microcosm for the rest of us.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The interview and stage footage appears to be shot on video, since it's lacking in fine detail and textures, with a rather soft appearance. Colors are vivid and nicely stable, however, and black levels are quite good.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 surround track has nice separation during the musical sequences, and plenty of bold surround information. The interview segments are always clear though there is a modicum of hiss present.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
9 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Brother's Keeper, Go Tigers!, Keep the River on Your Right, The Legend of Ron Jeremy, Lost in La Mancha, The Smashing Machine, The Weather Underground
6 Deleted Scenes
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:26m:44s

Extra Extras:
  1. Oscar acceptance speech
Extras Review: Docurama provides some interesting materials to back up the feature, including some deleted scenes that add a very different perspective to the film, most notably a segment relating to a strike/lockout of the chorus members over their wage demands that lets loose the anger and hostility that is completely sublimated in the main feature. The other scenes include some humorous and touching anecdotes. Two additional scenes, apparently shot years later, include a clip of a children's matinee of La Boheme and a discussion of the gay marriage of one of the chorus members featured in the main film. There are two short featurettes with the directors discussing the genesis of the film, and biographies of the two of them. Finally, there's their Oscar acceptance speech. One notable extra that is missing is the black-and-white 8mm footage surreptitiously shot onstage by director Allie Light's husband in the 1950s. That was originally going to be the focus of the film, but it organically grew in a different direction, so only a few seconds of this footage still remain. I would have expected that footage would have been a natural extra here, but it's not present at all, possibly due to rights issues with the stars (or their estates).

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

A splendid look at the often-overlooked members of the chorus that will stay with the viewer a long time. Some additional scenes help flesh the material out significantly and are well worth checking out.


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