Unlike the man he's basically playing, this is Roy Scheider's only move in Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz." Credit: Provided Unlike the man he's basically playing, this is Roy Scheider's only move in Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz."
Credit: Provided

‘All That Jazz’
The Criterion Collection
$39.95

“All That Jazz” wasn’t always meant to be self-indulgent. It wasn’t supposed to resemble filmmaker Bob Fosse’s life at all. As explained in one of the many features on Criterion’s new set for the 1979 semi-musical, the dancer/choreographer/film director wanted to adapt a book called “Ending,” one woman’s account of tending to her husband as he died from cancer. At some point it was crassly suggested — perhaps to actually fill some seats — that he maybe throw in some musical numbers. One thing led to another and suddenly it was about a Broadway choreographer, just like him. Then more and more of Fosse’s life crept in, until it was basically telling the story about when he almost died choreographing the show “Chicago” and editing the 1974 film “Lenny” simultaneously. His real-life then-mistress (Ann Reinking) was even cast as the antihero’s mistress. (Fosse made her audition for the part, natch.) Eventually Fosse was telling journalists, not very convincingly, it was only partly about him.

The self-indulgence — a word not necessarily meant pejoratively — is a major part of what gives “All That Jazz” its unique power. But though it's a Fosse-fest, that's not all there is to it. “All That Jazz” is a dense stew, with thinly veiled autobiography diced up — via its hyperactive, Oscar-winning editing — with Inside Baseball bitching, a portrait of show business as unhealthy vice, its maker’s crippling fear of mortality, forward-thinking cinematic techniques and a series of radical musical numbers, each one different from the rest.

 

One number in "All That Jazz" is performed in a tight rehearsal space. Credit: Provided One number in "All That Jazz" is performed in a tight rehearsal space.
Credit: Provided

It even stopped short of starring him.Fosse tried to be a screen dancer, but had to settle — after only four movie roles — with staying behind the scenes. He was already too busy — as someone who won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony in the same year (1972) — to play himself. It’s Roy Scheider who plays Joe Gideon, a Broadway legend working on a show he doesn’t much like — one major diversion from reality, since one would assume Fosse liked “Chicago” — then walking across the street to put OCD touches on a film about a comic (Cliff Gorman) he’s been editing for seven months. In between he deals with the business side of the biz, as well as his women: his ex-wife (Leland Palmer), his adoring daughter (Erzsebet Foldi), his girlfriend (Reinking) and whatever women he sneaks into his bed. None are nags; in fact Joe seems to love all of them, even if all of them return the adoration but with fits of bitter hatred. (Palmer at one point tearfully praises one of his numbers, then follows that up by hurling an insult his way.) His various stresses and substance abuse soon gets the better of him, and as a hospital stay looks like it might be permanent, the film disappears into his head, which of course is filled with nutty musical numbers.

Fosse was, as they say, “putting it all out there,” airing his copious faults as well as his copious talents. Everyone thinks he’s a genius, though Joe is at least somewhat agnostic on the topic. In a skeptical short review of the film, Dave Kehr called it a “feverish, painful expression of a man who lives in mortal fear of his own mediocrity.” No doubt Fosse would have agreed. He doesn’t shy away from obvious symbolism. (One of the first images is of Joe on a tightrope, ferchrissakes.) The numbers — especially once they start getting hallucinatory — have a tacky, alternate dimension Vegas quality to them, notably the capper: an epic cover of “Bye Bye Love” that replaces “love” with “life,” and features blinding flashing lights and dancers in skin-tight anatomy class wear, complete with exposed veins. It’s at once over-the-top, gaudy and extremely moving, especially since the rewording transforms The Everly Brothers’ woe-is-me line “I think I’m going to die” into a cry of anguish.

It might be all Fosse Fosse Fosse, but it’s telling that the actual Fosse is nowhere in it. In a sense, “All That Jazz” is unusually generous, handing the spotlight to such long-legged goddesses as Reinking and Palmer (whose character is modeled on Gwen Verdon, who never divorced him after the split), plus his “Pippin” star Ben Vereen. His stand-in, Scheider — no dancer or singer — repeatedly disappears from the picture, watching or prowling around as dancers frug in Fosse’s aggressive, pushy style. He only busts out moves — merely darting arm gestures anyone could do — at the end, and is still overpowered by his duet partner, Ben Vereen, who's the one who really owns the finale.

Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi dance to a tape recording of "Everything Old is New Again" in "All That Jazz." Credit: Provided Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi dance to a tape recording of "Everything Old is New Again" in "All That Jazz."
Credit: Provided

Technically “All That Jazz” is a musical — a very R-rated musical — in that a large chunk of it is filled with actual musical numbers. But each one imagines a different angle in which to stage numbers. The first song isn’t even a song and dance number; it’s a montage. During a cattle call, George Benson’s live cover of “On Broadway” creeps onto the soundtrack. Another number (“Everything Old is New Again”) has characters dancing to — and sometimes lightly singing along with — a tape. Still another (“AirRotica”) is a Broadway performance performed in a tight, gray rehearsal space for a small and bewildered audience. The more traditional numbers — that is, people on a stage, dancing to music with no visible source — all take place in Joe’s head as he lies on an operating table, perhaps never to wake up. It’s no ordinary musical; in fact, it’s offers a hodgepodge of directions in which the movie musical can go, if it itself wasn’t about to die too. It’s like a Hail Mary for a genre that wouldn’t be revived for another two decades (in part with the 2002 film of the Fosse extravaganza “Chicago”).

The story isn’t really universal, which isn’t to say it’s not relatable. It’s a movie about workaholicism for workaholics. It understands — if can never properly fix, not that it wants to — the drive to devote one’s self body and soul and death to work. Showbiz is one of Joe’s drugs; in fact, the other drugs — the pills, the booze, the tobacco, the sex — he takes to treat the side effects of his workaholicism, to keep himself going. If he didn’t have a cigarette perpetually dangling from his mouth, he might not be able to get through the constant stresses of each day. (Fosse explains — to Gene Shalit, no less, in one of the special features — that he sometimes would light a second, forgetting that one was already blazing away.) He’s killing himself to live — a nonsensical belief familiar to anyone consumed by their vocation. Fosse isn’t asking if show business is worth it if it kills you. He knows the answer. It’s yes. That shocking, hilariously sudden final cut isn’t a warning; it’s a prophecy of what, for Fosse, was only eight years away.

Al Pacino gets ready to do some shoutin' in "Any Given Sunday." Credit: Provided Al Pacino gets ready to do some shoutin' in "Any Given Sunday."
Credit: Provided

‘Any Given Sunday’
Warner Home Entertainment
$19.98

On the “All That Jazz” set — on an episode of Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow,” of all things — Fosse discusses the bizarre and possibly America-exclusive notion that dancing is feminine. How can something that requires such physical strength and dexterity not be perceived as masculine, he wonders. (And it’s worth noting that his film features a hoofer who goes through chicks like water.)

Indeed, “All That Jazz” has a fair amount in common with a hyper-masculine film: the football saga “Any Given Sunday.” Both have hyper-editing. Both feature aging, self-destructive men who push themselves too hard in a form of show business — obsessed with a profession that may wind up doing them in. And both feature bodies destroying themselves through inhuman physical torture.

There the similarities arguably end. Its filmmaker — Oliver Stone, of course — has a deeply personal connection to the story. He’s effectively Al Pacino’s Coach Tony D’Amato, pissing off the powers-that-be with his bold iconoclasm and eccentricity, taking what should be a simple football picture only to turn in a formally adventurous work that runs nearly three, often punishing hours.

But Stone isn’t Coach D’Amato the way Fosse was Joe Gideon. Fosse WAS Gideon. Stone simply identifies with parts of D’Amato. And football is not Stone’s thing. He seems like a fan, but he’s mostly interested in it as a subject — a thing to put into a film. Stone began as a more “plain” filmmaker, but with “The Doors” and “JFK” — both, insanely, from 1991, meaning he cranked out around five hours of truly dense cinema in one year — he helped create a hyper-style (as did Tony Scott) that favored sensation over sense. “Any Given Sunday” is Stone’s apotheosis, this style-wise: It’s all flowing colors, devoid of a sense of place or definition. It’s about football as an impact sport, and its individual games are about sensation, not strategy or plays: just powerful bodies hurtling into each other.

Jamie Foxx (with Al Pacino) plays a bullheaded star QB in "Any Given Sunday." Credit: Provided Jamie Foxx (with Al Pacino) plays a bullheaded star QB in "Any Given Sunday."
Credit: Provided

Content-wise Stone is another story. He's mostly interested in stirring up some s—. “JFK” gave him a reputation as a conspiracy theorist and controversy-slinger. Some of his films (“Natural Born Killers” and “Nixon,” especially) can feel like he’s trying to live up to this image. Taken that way, “Any Given Sunday” is disappointing. He’s not saying anything new: the games are overrun by pesky owners and corporate shills; the players turn selfish once they achieve stardom; the journalists are jerks (John C. McGinley’s one here actually smokes a fat stogie while muttering the words he’s typing); the doctors may just be doling out drugs; etc., etc. It’s cynical and weary, but it’s teaching what doesn’t need taught.

Still, it’s thrilling to see the way Stone constructs this. The opening of the film — which starts in media res, with a key play that will destroy one of its star quarterbacks (Dennis Quaid) about to begin — is a thrilling encapsulation of all sides of football happening at once. With great speed Stone cuts around the game, the players, the press box, the owner’s box, the crowd, the photographers, the Skycam — he’s saying he’s going to give you all of football, not just one part. It’s trying to be the ultimate football movie: the one with the hardest plays, the best motivational speeches (courtesy Pacino at his shoutiest), the craziest parties (one has an SUV gets chainsawed in half), the most cynical observations. Every angle is hit, no stone is left unturned. Form triumphs over content to a degree that it’s not shameful but transcendent. It’s a basic thing beautifully said.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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