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.)|
|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!"|
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
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 clichéd narrative just so that 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.
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
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. Hollywood
|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.
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.
Copyright © Ken Anderson