Friday, December 16, 2011

ALL THAT JAZZ 1979

All That Jazz is the movie I wish had inspired me to become a dancer. Bob Fosse's artily stylized, semi-autobiographical, cinematic dissertation on the artist as a self-destructive skirt-chaser, is just the kind of tragic mythologizing of the fragility of the creative instinct that appeals to the romantic dreamer in me.

As I stated in an earlier post, the movie that actually inspired me to abandon my film studies and embark on a 25-year career as a dancer is the legendarily reviled roller-skatin' muse project, Xanadu (1980). Don't get me wrong... Xanadu, in all its flawed glory, is, and always will be for me, an infinitely more joyous, emotionally persuasive experience than All That Jazz ever was (those soaring notes reached by ELO and ONJ on Xanadu’s title track could inspire poetry). It's just that when one is recounting that seminal, life-altering moment wherein one’s artistic destiny is met face-to-face, it would be nice to be able to point to a serious, substantive work like All That Jazz, instead of a film dubbed by Variety as being about, "A roller-skating lightbulb."
Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon (a.k.a. Bob Fosse)
Jessica Lange as Angelique (a.k.a. The Angel of Death)
Leland Palmer as Audrey Paris (a.k.a. Gwen Verdon)
Ann Reinking as Kate Jagger (a.k.a. Ann Reinking)
Ben Vereen as O'Connor Flood  (a.k.a. Sammy Davis, Jr.)
 All that Jazz is the story of Broadway chorographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider); a pill-popping, chain-smoking, serial-womanizing choreographer/director who struggles to prevent the demons that fuel his creativity from consuming his life. Simultaneously mounting a Broadway show and editing a motion picture, Gideon's intensifying abuse of his health (both physical and mental) manifests, surrealistically, as a literal love affair/dialog with death (a teasing Jessica Lange). Fosse makes no effort to mask the fact that Joe Gideon is Bob Fosse and All That Jazz is Fosse's . But, as gifted as he is, Bob Fosse is no Frederico Fellini. His essential shallowness of character (something he takes great pains to dramatize in the film) makes for the baring of guardedly superficial insights, leaving the larger philosophical questions of "what price art?" unaddressed.
Director/choreographer Joe Gideon engaging in his other talent: disappointing loved ones.
In this case, his daughter, Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) a.k.a. Nicole Fosse.

All That Jazz asks us to accept that while Joe Gideon is selfish, an adulterer, a neglectful father, a philanderer, a manipulator and a liar; gosh darn it, at least he knows it! Nobody’s perfect, the film seems to be saying, but what Gideon offers as a means of earthly penance for the pain he causes others, is his genius. And indeed for me, Fosse's choreography in All That Jazz is so brilliant as to justify almost anything. Almost.
And thus we land at what ultimately dissatisfies about All That Jazz. It purports to be introspective, but at its heart, it’s apologist. Fosse isn’t invested in getting to the root of what makes Gideon/Fosse tick, so much as pleading a case for the redemptive power of artistic genius.
"It's showtime, folks!"
I buy happily into the enduring romantic myth of the tortured, suffering artist. The tortured, suffering artist as asshole? Not so much. It seems to me a curiously male perspective that allows for the emotional collateral damage of a life of self-indulgence to be tolerated, and ultimately absolved, through one’s art. (The female equivalent: the fragile, too-sensitive-for-this-world type, more apt to do harm to herself than others.)

Scene after scene of Joe Gideon indulging in the self-serving honesty of the cheater (“Yes, I’m a dog, but I’m up front about it!”) never once feel emotionally revelatory.
Rather, they recall this exchange from 1968's Cactus Flower-

(Walter Matthau's aging lothario prostrating himself before girlfriend Goldie Hawn)
Matthau:  I'm a bastard. I'm the biggest bastard in the whole world!
Hawn:  Julian, please...you're beginning to make it sound like bragging.

Personally, I'm waiting for the day when someone will make a film that sheds some light on what kind of women attach themselves to artistic, self-centered men; never resenting having to  play second, third, or sixth fiddle, as they float, interchangeable satellites, in the orbit of genius.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Gaydar Setting? Off the Chart
Dime-store psychologists seeking the origins of Bob Fosse's serial-womanizing need look no further than these two dishy publicity stills from early in Fosse's dance career.
This guy must have felt he had something to prove.
It couldn't have been easy being a heterosexual (possibly bisexual) dancer in an era when all male dancers were presumed to be gay (the 40s & 50s) and the pervasive concepts of masculinity (none of which applied to the slight-framed, thin-voiced Fosse) were particularly narrow.
The phenomenon is dramatized in the 1977 ballet film, The Turning Point when a heterosexual male dancer admits to marrying and having a child at a young age in an effort to prove to himself he wasn't gay.
(photos courtesy of ilakid.blogspot.com & victim86.blogspot.com)

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
If you haven't yet gleaned it, I'm not overly fond of the autobiographical structure of All That Jazz's plot. But much like the women who put up with Joe Gideon because he's a genius of dance, I confess that I endure the clich├ęd narrative just so than I can enjoy the stupendous dance sequences. Bob Fosse is my favorite choreographer of all time and his work here is beyond splendid. It's absolutely amazing, and among the best of his career.
A legend on Broadway, director/choreographer/sometime-actor Bob Fosse directed but three movie musicals (Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and All That Jazz), yet their influence on dance and the genre of movie musical in general has been far-reaching and incalculable. Raked over the coals by critics for the stylistic excesses of 1969s Sweet Charity (Pauline Kael went so far as to call the film "a  disaster"); by the time these talents were honed and polished to a fine gloss in Cabaret (1972), Fosse's fluidly kinetic camerawork and  slice and dice style of editing eventually became the definitive visual style for contemporary movie musicals.
What has always struck me about Fosse's dance style was how it was so perfect for the female form. If the lines of classic ballet celebrated the idealized feminine form— ethereal and untouchable—Fosse's sensuous style took woman off the pedestal and celebrated her sensuality and reveled in her carnal vulgarity. Drawing from his days in burlesque, Fosse's style somehow sidesteps the passive, camp allure of the showgirl and captures an exhibitionistic hyperfemininity that carries with it a touch of danger. To watch the way Gwen Verdon moves as Lola in Damn Yankees is to see the pin-up ideal come to life. I've always thought that if a Vargas Girl portrait could move, she'd move like a Bob Fosse dancer.

PERFORMANCES:
Fosse elicits many fine performances from his cast. Roy Scheider, a non-dancer, is surprisingly good, displaying an easy charm behind a keyed-up physicality that makes him believable as dancer and object of masochistic female affection (my heart blanches at the thought of originally cast Richard Dreyfuss in the role). Leland Palmer is perhaps my favorite; a fabulous dancer and one of those actresses who's edgy quality makes you keep your eye on her even when she's not pivotal to the scene. No surprise that Ann Reinking is a phenomenally talented dancer and truly a marvel to watch, but it's nice that she also displays an easy, husky-voiced naturalness in her non-dancing scenes. Jessica Lange has had such an impressive career that it's easy to forget that her debut in King Kong (1976) almost turned her into the Elizabeth Berkley of the 70s. Wisely turning her back on Hollywood's blonde-of-the-month publicity machine, Lange took three years off and reemerged in the small but pivotal role in All That Jazz that successfully showcased her ability to do more than look pretty sitting in an ape's paw.
Flirting with Death
The brilliance that is All That Jazz pretty much extends to everything but the central conceit of the plot (which somehow worked for Fellini and no one else. Rob Marshall's Nine was pretty dismal). Fosse gets Fellini's cinematographer, Giuseppe Rottuno (Fellini Satyricon), to give the film a smoky sheen, the music is sparkling, and the dreamy stylization employed throughout is sometimes breathtakingly inventive. One just wishes they weren't in the service of such meager emotional epiphanies.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
In the book, On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line, the authors (several members of the original Broadway cast) recall how, after sever years of film treatments, director/choreographer Michael Bennett was unable to land on a satisfactory method to translate his show to the screen. All involved in A Chorus Line thought that Fosse had, for all intents and purposes, beat them to the punch and delivered (in a virtuoso eight-minute opening sequence), everything that a screen adaptation of A Chorus Line should have been. And indeed, the opening of All That Jazz is a matchless example of film as storyteller. It's so perfect, it's like a short film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I'm crazy about all of the dancing in All That Jazz. Understandably, most people recall the remarkable "Take Off With Us/ Air-otica" number, but I have a particular fondness for "Bye Bye Love/Life" number that ends the film. A fantasy fever dream/nightmare taking place in the mind of Joe Gideon as he slips away on a hospital bed, this number is outrageous in concept and phenomenal in execution. We're in Ken Russell territory when you have a dying man dressed in sequins (complete with silver open-heart surgery scar) singing his own eulogy to an audience of everyone he's ever encountered in his life, while flanked by gyrating dancers dressed as diagrams of the human circulatory system.  
WOW!
 I never tire of watching this number as it appeals to both the dancer and film enthusiast in me. Fosse, whose signature style consisted of small moves, isolations, and minimal gestures, always seemed better suited to the movies than the stage. He ushered in the use of the camera and editor as collaborative choreographers, punctuating the rhythms and drawing the eye to the details.

Bob Fosse passed away in 1987, mere months after the death of his closest professional peer/rival, Michael Bennett. Broadway and dance suffered a loss that year that I don't think it has ever recovered from. Bennett didn't live long enough to leave his stamp on cinema, but lucky for us, Fosse left a recorded legacy that represents the best of cinema dance as art. "Thank you" doesn't begin to cover the debt of gratitude.
Bye-Bye, Love
Copyright © Ken Anderson

11 comments:

  1. Georgia XanthopoulouFebruary 15, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    All that jazz has to be one of my favourite films, and incredibly inspiring to dancers everywhere, you're right!

    Read my review of All that Jazz at http://www.unsungfilms.com/?p=3138, if you're interested!

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    1. Thanks for visiting my blog and providing the link to your post. "All That Jazz" has an enduring appeal that really seems timeless. You capture a lot of what I also feel about the film in your review. Thanks for sharing it!

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    2. Georgia XanthopoulouFebruary 15, 2012 at 1:25 PM

      :) Loved your post-to the point when it comes to how Fosse's dance style is for the camera as well!

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    1. Folks, you should check out the link above for a great review of "All That Jazz". Very insightful! Visit Unsung Films.com or copy and paste the link.

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  3. This is a fantastic review! Love the movie, and love your blog.

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    1. Hello Moi
      So nice to hear from a fan of this movie (a big fan, I think!)and for you to be so complimentary is icing on the cake. Glad you enjoyed the review and especially glad you like the blog. You're very kind. Thanks and hope you come back!

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  4. What a totally strange film. It's so terribly morbid, yet the big musical number at the end...it's one of the most joyous numbers one could imagine!

    Ben Vereen seemed to be everywhere back in the day. A look at his credits and now I realise why he seemed so familiar--he was a regular on "Webster", plus he was Chicken George in "Roots"!

    As I watched the film, I wondered if the little girl (Erzsebet Foldi) was the real "Nicole Fosse", so how odd to discover that Michelle Gideon was based upon Bob Fosse's daughter. I'm not sure why, but as I watched the film, I wasn't fully connected to the fact that the film was intended as somewhat autobiographical. I guess it had been a while since I really had a good read of the above review.

    Every time I've seen him in a picture, Roy Scheider looks a little rough around the edges, somewhat well-worn, so he was physically ideal for this role (one must take into account his earlier life as a pugulist, plus the fact that he didn't really make an impact in the pictures until he was around 40).

    Surely, Ken, you have those difficult mornings where you look into the mirror and say with some irony: "It's showtime, folks!"

    Between this and films such as "Cabaret" and "Lenny", psychologically, it tells one all that one needs to know about the late Bob Fosse. Speaking of "Lenny", I noticed the Lenny Bruce clone (how could I not?)in "All That Jazz", played by Cliff Gorman. He was uncanny. I see that he played Lenny Bruce on stage. So I take it that Bob Fosse knew Lenny Bruce in real-life?

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    1. Hi Mark
      I'm glad you re-visited this film. It definitely has a morbid tone, but has quite a bit of joy in the musical numbers and dancing.

      It's interesting what you say about your not being immediately seizing upon the film being autobiographical. A friend of mine recently saw the film and, while aware of its biographical bent, thought the film was "about" Fosse but directed by someone else! I think such bald narcissism/self-exposure is kind of rare.

      As for Cliff Gorman and Lenny, I have no idea if Fosse knew Lenny Bruce, but I think I recall reading somewhere that Fosse he actually wanted Gorman for his film (he'd seen him in the stage show) but the studio insisted on a name star like Hoffman for boxoffice reasons.
      Oh, and yes, as i get older and teach, those "It's showtime, folks!" morning become ever more frequent! Thanks, Mark!

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  5. Hi Ken,

    I read your piece as part of my research for a cinema programme review:

    http://www.samesame.com.au/reviews/9289/GOMA-Cinema-Programme-Dance-on-Film-Since-the-1970s.htm

    Your writing is great - informed and lively. Thanks :-)

    Cheers,

    Tim

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    1. Hello Tim
      Thank you very much for your kind compliment, and I'm flattered if you found anything in this post to be helpful in researching your article. i just finished reading your review of "All That Jazz" and very much enjoyed your insights and observations. I especially liked your calling attention to the affection conveyed in the "Everything Old is New Again" number, and cleverly noting how the terrific Leland Palmer "dances rings around" the Joe Gideon. talk about lively writing! I enjoyed it a great deal. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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