All That Jazz

Director: Bob Fosse
Screenplay: Robert Alan Arthur and Bob Fosse
Stars: Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Jessica Lange (Angelique), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Ann Reinking (Kate Jagger), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle), Michael Tolan (Dr. Ballinger), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Irene Kane (Leslie Perry), Deborah Geffner (Victoria), Kathryn Doby (Kathryn), Anthony Holland (Paul Dann), Robert Hitt (Ted Christopher)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1979
Country: U.S.
All That Jazz Criterion Collection Blu-ray
All That JazzAlthough not his last major project, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is the culmination of a lifetime of work on stage and screen, a fantastical rumination on impending death by one of the great creative innovators of the second half of the twentieth century. Fosse would go on to live for another eight years (he died of a heart attack in 1987), but you can sense in the film the expectation that his life is coming to a close, which had almost happened five years earlier when he nearly drove himself into cardiac arrest while simultaneously editing his film Lenny (1974) and rehearing the first Broadway stage production of Chicago. All That Jazz emerged out of that harrowing experience, as he was popping amphetamines, eating horribly and barely sleeping, overworking his body and mind to a point of collapse.

All That Jazz takes place within the same milieu, with Roy Scheider playing Fosse’s on-screen surrogate Joe Gideon, a Broadway choreographer and film director who, like Fosse, dresses all in black, sports a pointy gray beard, and is rarely if ever seen without a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Fosse repeatedly denied that he and Gideon were the same, but the similarities—physically, personally, professionally—are too obvious to read the film as anything other than openly autobiographical. Given that Fosse himself was prone to depression and self-deprecation, it is no small surprise that his depiction of Gideon is something less than flattering. All That Jazz is anything but a hagiography, although it makes no bones about the Gideon’s creative genius, even if said genius keeps him from investing himself fully in his relationships, whether it be with his current girlfriend (Ann Reinking), his ex-wife with whom he still collaborates creatively (Leland Palmer), or his 12-year-old daughter (Erzsebet Foldi). It is telling that, when Joe does connect with those closest to him, dancing is somehow involved. It’s how he communicates.

Taking a cue from Federico Fellini’s autobiographical fantasia 8 ½ (1963), Fosse and co-screenwriter Robert Alan Arthur structure the film around Joe’s artistic struggles, in this case editing his latest film (The Standup, which is clearly a nod to Lenny) and choreographing a new Broadway show (the overly chipper composer of which is a none-too-subtle jab at Steven Schwartz, with whom Fosse famously clashed on Pippin). Also like 8 ½, the film frequently cuts away from the reality of Gideon’s life to an internal fantasy world in which he discusses his life—and all its attendant mistakes—with a beautiful woman in white (Jessica Lange) who we eventually come to realize is the Angel of Death.

These interludes serve the dual purpose of allowing Fosse to deal creatively with the necessity of flashbacks, such as Gideon’s early years hoofing it as a teenager in cheap burlesque clubs, and also injecting gloriously fantastical musical numbers to showcase his unique choreography. Thus, All That Jazz merges the two major variations of the movie musical—the backstage musical and the fantasy musical—which allows Fosse to have his cake and eat it, too. He gets to indulge the impossible whimsy of an internal world where rules don’t apply while also acknowledging the sweaty, gritty, body-breaking realities of Broadway choreography, which finds its apotheosis in Gideon’s erotically charged staging of an otherwise blithe musical number that he presents to his show’s nervous producers.

Although Roy Scheider was not the first choice to play Gideon (his Jaws cast-mate Richard Dreyfus was originally cast, but left during rehearsals when the project was delayed for several months), it is hard to imagine the film with anyone else in the role. With his angular face, intense eyes, and sinewy body, he is the perfect embodiment of an artist on the edge. It also does not hurt that he had played largely sympathetic roles—typically decent, blue-collar leaders in extraordinary circumstances as in Jaws (1975) and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)—which helps make Joe, an amoral, self-centered womanizer and all-around cad, a more relatable character. The scene in which he delights to watching his girlfriend and daughter perform an elaborate dance routine for his birthday reminds us that his humanity persists behind the cloud of drugs, smoke, and delusion. Similarly, the scenes with Lange betray a sense of vulnerability and honesty that tinge his uglier moments with Fosse’s own sense of self-loathing. Scheider sings and dances, but most of all he bares his frailty, a crucial dimension to a film about a man who is effectively on his deathbed.

But did I mention that All That Jazz is often very funny? Although not directly a comedy, Fosse clearly recognizes the inherent absurdities of show business—which he both loves and hates—and he has great fun with nervous producers (particularly Max Wright’s exasperated film producer), opportunistic competitors (best seen in John Lithgow’s smug theater director who is all to willing to take over Gideon’s project), and the various unheralded minions who make the show go on. Like many of Fosse’s characters, Gideon is a Svengali, lording over the dancers who struggle to learn his moves and embody his creative spirit. It is fitting, in this regard, that the film opens with a “cattle call,” in which Gideon selects a handful of dancers from a stage full of hopefuls of varying degrees of desperation. His own burned-out ethos is portrayed as an inevitable result of his artistic determination, and everything else—wives, daughters, girlfriends—must be pushed to the side. As he says to himself every morning after showering, popping a pill, and rehydrating his bloodshot eyes, “It’s showtime!”

All That Jazz Criterion Collection Dual-Format Blu-ray + DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by editor Alan Heim
  • Selected-scene audio commentary by actor Roy Scheider
  • Video interviews with Alan Heim
  • Video interview with Bob Fosse biographer Sam Wasson
  • New conversation between actors Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi
  • Episode of the talk show Tomorrow from 1980, featuring director Bob Fosse and choreographer Agnes de Mille
  • Interviews with Fosse from 1981 and 1986
  • On-set footage
  • “Portrait of a Choreographer” featurette
  • “The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards” featurette
  • Interview with George Benson about his song “On Broadway”
  • Essay by critic Hilton Als
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateAugust 26, 2014

    VIDEO
    All That Jazz has been previously available on DVD in two different editions from 20th Century Fox Home Video, one from 2003 and one from 2007, but the new 4K digital restoration on Criterion’s Blu-ray is a clear improvement. The transfer, which was made from the original camera negative in a joint effort by 20th Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive, looks absolutely stunning. The depth of texture and grain in the image is outstanding, and colors are beautifully rendered throughout. Of course, much of the film is swathed in black (from the clothes, to the dark interiors, to the smoky dance sequences), and black levels are perfectly presented, with excellent shadow detail and no crushing. The disc also features a three-channel surround soundtrack in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio transferred at 24-bit from a magnetic track. Like the image, the sound quality is outstanding, which allows us to fully appreciate the varied use of music throughout the film, from familiar show tunes to covers of old standards.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The impressive list of supplements draws from both of Fox’s previous DVD releases, but also includes quite a few new items unique to Criterion’s edition. We start with two audio commentaries, a selected-scene commentary by actor Roy Scheider taken from the 2003 DVD and a feature-length commentary by editor Alan Heim that first appeared on the 2007 DVD. Also from that latter DVD we get “Portrait of a Choreographer”, a featurette about Fosse’s unique style that features interviews with Liza Minnelli, dancer Sandahl Bergman, and director Rob Marshall, among others; “The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards,” a featurette about the film’s soundtrack that includes interviews with Minelli and Heim, as well as Glen Ballard, Jerry Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Diane Warren; and a brief interview with composer George Benson about his song “On Broadway.” New to Criterion’s disc are two video interviews: one with Heim, in which he spends 15 minutes talking about not just his work with Fosse on All That Jazz, but also Lenny (1974) and Star 80 (1983), and one with wild-haired biographer Sam Wasson, who gives us an excellent 20-minute snapshot of Fosse’s rather extraordinary life and how it overlaps with and diverges from All That Jazz. There is also an enjoyable new half-hour conversation between actors Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi, who have remained friends ever since making the film together. As they often do, the good folks at Criterion have also dug into the archives, unearthing a 1980 episode of the talk show Tomorrow featuring Fosse and choreographer Agnes de Mille; an interview with Fosse on The South Bank Show in 1981 and another interview from 1986 conducted by film critic Gene Shalit; eight minutes of on-set footage and a brief interview with Scheider during the production; and the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)




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