‘All That Jazz’ (Criterion Blu-ray)

A nigh-on-perfect, electrifying, almost overwhelmingly sexy and enthralling post-modern film musical from 1979 gets the revival treatment from Criterion, and the results could not be more pleasing.

The stunning 'cattle call' opening sequence, featuring Fosse's signature 'Tea for Two' routine.
The stunning ‘cattle call’ opening sequence, featuring Fosse’s signature ‘Tea for Two’ routine.

As a spotty 13 year old, it took more than a single viewing of this film on video cassette for your correspondent to ‘get it’. Only after the character ‘Angelique’ was explained to me did the film start to make sense, and likeThe Godfather, it’s a film which invites new insights, and accompanying appreciation, with every viewing. I’ve seen it dozens of times since then, and it was from very early on that it emerged as one of my favourite films. Top five, easily.

The film’s narrative mirrors the life and work of Bob Fosse at one particular point in his career. The film reflects the time in his life when he was finishing editing a film (in reality, Lenny; in the film The Stand-Up), while staging a new musical (in reality, Chicago; in the film it’s unnamed). He had been on the receiving end of high praise and accolades for an earlier work (in reality Cabaret; in the film 8 Beautiful Girls 8), and was working with his ex-wife despite their marriage having ended acrimoniously (in reality, Gwen Verdon; on film, the superb Leland Palmer). Liquor, drugs and general excess in life was par for the course for both Fosse, and his on-screen alter ego Joe Gideon.

I love the recurring motifs – how Gideon’s morning routine involves Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, eye drops and a shower (accompanied by Vivaldi’s Concert in G) as a basic part of his existence – it’s an essential part of his survival. Jessica Lange’s role as Angelique – the Angel of Death – as the film’s narrator, in conversation with Gideon as he reflects on his life, mistakes, excesses and inevitable mortality. Films surrounding narratives about film makers, or writers, at some kind of creative impasse or crisis is a fairly well-explored motif (Fellini did ; Woody Allen did Stardust Memories; Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, while equally post-modern, is more about a screenwriter at a creative crossroads). But All That Jazz serves, among other things, as the perfect blend of such a narrative with a distinctly New York sensibility; I’m not sure any other film has captured Broadway so perfectly. It is, however, the smaller details on the extras for this release that make it so informative and valuable.

This, I believe, is what they call vision. The scene says innumerable things without a word of dialogue spoken, it’s brilliant.

The film’s opening number is set to George Benson’s ‘On Broadway’. In it, we see a cattle call of dancers to potentially become part of the Company of Gideon’s next work. The scene is essentially a music video (ahead of its time), but its purpose is to show the creative and selection process of a director-choreographer. The behind-the-scenes documentary explains that the routine these dancers are doing is one called ‘Tea For Two’, which is the routine Fosse always used to select dancers so he could see, at a glance, how well the dancer was trained and the fluidity of their movements. It explains a lot about the man’s insight (and relative genius) that he could look at the movement of an arm, or a leg, the curve of a body of a dancer and know that they could, or couldn’t, do what he needed them to. This, I believe, is what they call vision. The scene says innumerable things without a word of dialogue spoken, it’s brilliant.

Roy Scheider, aka Joe Gideon – magnificent performance.
Roy Scheider, aka Joe Gideon – magnificent performance.

Roy Scheider’s performance is an incredible piece of work. There’s very little daylight between his Joe Gideon and Fosse himself, and Scheider inhabits the role beautifully. You can see him crumble as the film evolves. The desperation in his eyes is present throughout, and even though he seemingly wants to live, his addictive personality and destructive behaviour edges him ever so steadily towards the abyss. Leland Palmer, who all-but disappeared from acting after the film (per Scheider’s 2001 DVD commentary, she went to live in Israel) is wonderful as Audrey: long-suffering, but good-humoured, immensely talented yet edging towards an age plateau where all the dancing and performance might be too much for her. It’s also said that Ann Reinking essentially played herself, but still had to audition for the part. Fosse was an interesting character, to say the least.

One of the new features for this release is a 2014 interview with Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi – who played Gideon’s girlfriend, Kate and daughter, Michelle (respectively) in the film. It’s wonderful to see them reflect on the piece 35 years after the fact. Reinking’s had some work done recently, however, and looks somewhat ghoulish in this – she was in Australia, overseeing the choreography for the revival of Chicago in 1998 and she looked not unlike she did on film in the ’70s and ’80s. Here, something’s gone astray. It’s unsettling. The Portrait of a Choreographer documentary gives a significant insight as to the man himself, and how he was regarded among those who worked with him. It’s delightful to see Sandahl Bergman (in this, 2007) years later reflect on Fosse and his work with such resonance and emotion – she performed the immeasurably erotic ‘Take Off With Us’ number and apparently has not aged a day in the ensuing decades.

Fosse was a man of the theatre more so than the cinema. His stage work was (apparently) peerless (I only ever saw one production, the three-act revue of his work, Fosse, at the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway in 2000). His film work as director was uneven. Sweet Charity had some amazing production numbers, but did not work as a film. Cabaret is a classic; Lenny was vastly different, but very strong; there’s this one; then Star 80, which is hardly the coda such a talent would wish to go out on. He died in 1987.

The film was nominated for nine Oscars, winning four – losing the major awards to Kramer vs Kramer in a year that also included Apocalypse Now (which means nothing aside from the fact that people voted a certain way in 1979; neither here nor there). This is an astonishing film, really, one of the all-time great movie musicals, and one of my favourite films ever. This Criterion release, like almost all of the work that company does, is exceptional.

• New 4K digital restoration, with 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• Audio commentary featuring editor Alan Heim
• Selected-scene audio commentary by actor Roy Scheider
• New interviews with Heim and 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, a 2007 documentary on Fosse
• The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards, a 2007 documentary about the film’s music
• Interview with George Benson from 2007, about his song ‘On Broadway’, which opens the film
• A booklet featuring an essay by critic Hilton Als.

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