Ben Vereen and Roy Scheider in All That Jazz

All That Jazz

Celebrated as an incisive, self-lacerating backstage spectacle and razzed as an indulgent and pretentious passion project, genius director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is one of the most ambitious American films of the 1970s. At this point in his career, Fosse had nothing to prove to the show-business establishment — in 1973, he won the Oscar, the Tony, and the Emmy, all for directing — but a 1974 brush with death (exhaustion, heart attack, life-saving surgery) put him in an introspective mood, and the results were spectacular. Not content with reaching a dazzling apotheosis in the on-screen presentation of song and dance, Fosse wove singing and dancing into a semi-autobiographical narrative chronicling the final days in the life of Joe Gideon, a genius director-choreographer whose nonstop work regimen is making him physically ill. Underscoring the threat, the film opens with a line attributed to the high-wire artist  Karl Wallenda, who fell to his death during a performance in 1978: “To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting,” Joe’s work is his life, and the irony is that his work — along with the pills and the smokes that keep him going — is what kills him.

All That Jazz is a master class in narcissism. As Joe Gideon, Roy Scheider is decked out in devilish facial hair and tight black clothes that deliberately mimic Fosse’s own look. As the film begins, Gideon is auditioning dancers for a new stage musical with his assistant (Kathryn Doby, essentially playing herself), then dashing across Broadway to cut his film The Standup, about an acerbic comic, with his editor, Eddie (Alan Heim, essentially playing himself). Fosse had gone through the same process in real life, finishing his Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny even as rehearsals began on his musical Chicago. Gideon, like Fosse, suffered multiple show-stopping heart attacks from the strain. (In the film, one of them is triggered by a scathing review.) But while Gideon is self-destructive, he has a magnetic personality that inspires loyalty from his collaborators—including his girlfriend Kate (Anne Reinking, essentially playing herself), who sticks with him even after finding him in bed with a chorus girl. As he’s wheeled into surgery on his cheatin’ heart, Gideon hallucinates that Kate and his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer) are with him. “If I die, I’m sorry for all the bad things I did to you,” he tells Audrey, before turning to Kate and delivering the punchline with a tiny chuckle. “And if I live, I‘m sorry for all the bad things I’m gonna do to you.” Yes, parts of the film take on the tone of an apology—he’s so hard on himself!, Fosse’s defenders say—but memorializing your infidelities in 35mm seems like a funny way to express regret.

So is he boasting? Very well, he’s boasting. As swagger goes Fellini has nothing on this guy. (Fosse even snagged Fellini’s old cameraman, Giuseppe Rotunno, to shoot All That Jazz, no doubt anticipating the inevitable comparisons to Fellini’s .) Based on the evidence here assembled, Fosse was the biggest swinging dick on Broadway throughout the 1970s. But be fair—if he was bragging, he had earned it through development of his extraordinary, hard-won talent. It’s rare enough that a dance choreographer should succeed as a filmmaker, let alone a director who so successfully manipulates time and space on screen. Heim’s fearless, impressionistic editing presents All That Jazz as a mere moment in time, a story told by a man on the brink of the afterlife. The film opens with a fragment of conversation between Gideon and Angelique (Jessica Lange), a mysterious woman clad in white, sitting between twin spotlights on an apparently disused theater stage cluttered with costumes, debris, and neon. The ensuing, and much-celebrated, opening sequence depicting a cattle-call audition for dancers is shot and edited in a documentary style, running for six largely dialogue-free minutes and underscored by George Benson’s jazzy, scat-riddled 1978 cover of “On Broadway.” From that tour de force, we return briefly to Joe’s heart-to-heart with Angelique, who comments on his addiction to smoking, speed, and sex, and then back to the audition, where Gideon is hiring a pretty young thing who can neither sing nor dance, annoying the producers watching from the orchestra seats.

At this point, All That Jazz is already a story within a story, but Fosse and Heim build in more narrative layers. There’s the film-within-the-film that Gideon frets over relentlessly, editing and re-editing. There are the gestating musical numbers for the show Gideon’s working on, most notably the corny “Take Off with Us,” which he reworks into the kind of self-consciously erotic spectacle that would give Zalman King a boner. And finally there are the “hospital hallucinations,” depicted on screen as elaborately produced set pieces in which the women in Gideon’s life — Kate, Audrey, daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi)—dance in quintessential Fosse style amid hospital-inspired set decorations. They belt out the lyrics to jazz and pop standards that become morbid double-entendres as he faces open-heart surgery. (And, in an insert that’s both chilling and soothing, Angelique caresses his face.) All That Jazz takes place at the very frontier of death, the film’s consciousness moving freely between real life and illusion, capping Gideon’s remembrance of hard-won experience with riotous, imaginary climaxes to his life. Fosse never forgot the lessons he learned as a kid performing in burlesque clubs, and at his best his cretaive vision is a startling mix of the sublime and the vulgar. It all comes to a head when Ben Vereen performs a lurid and nearly interminable version of “Bye Bye Love,” shockingly and hilariously twisted by Fosse into “Bye Bye Life.” It’s in exceptionally poor taste — Gideon and Vereen are flanked on stage by two dancers (Ann Reinking and Kathryn Doby) in sexy white tights covered in red and blue veins as Gideon and Vereen sing out, backed by a rock band decked out in silver and white, for an audience of Gideon’s friends, lovers, and rivals. Beginning with Vereen’s spoken introduction, this number goes on for 10 unbelievable minutes. Some reviewers complain about this, but length is part of the intended effect. It’s riotously, jaw-droppingly over-the-top. (“This must have cost a fortune!” someone exclaims, approvingly.)

“Bye Bye Life” also includes one of my favorite images from the entire film. As Gideon and Fosse sing, they raise their left hands, palms spread wide, in a common Fosse gesture. Fosse cuts to a shot looking down at Scheider, past his open hand, as he sings with a little smile on his face. A few edits later, Fosse cuts to a similar but lower angle on Vereen, whose hand is held out so that his wide eyes can just be seen peering past his splayed fingers as he advances toward the camera. Vereen’s unctuous master of ceremonies routine is already a little unsettling in its smarmy enthusiasm and in this moment it becomes downright menacing. His character’s phony obsequiousness is a hallmark of show-business insincerity and his stage show a gateway to the underworld. I’ll always read Vereen in this scene as an avatar of death, if not the devil himself, collecting the prize offered up to him by Angelique, the phenomenally beautiful vision who finally seduces Joe into going gentle into the good night.

All That Jazz is at least as impressive formally as it is thematically. The editing, in particular, is sophisticated and expressive, trusting the audience to keep up as it short-circuits unnecessary exposition, or slips effortlessly, when needed, into flashback mode. Alan Heim’s Oscar was well deserved, but Fosse, too, had by this time learned a lot about what happens when you cut two pieces of film together. A look at the screenplay he wrote with Robert Alan Aurthur reveals that the film’s tricky structure had been worked out pretty carefully before it landed in the cutting room. The script was written in a way that gave Fosse room to improvise his shots on set — storyboards were not part of the equation — but the film was structurally sound before shooting began. Repetition, for instance, is a storytelling strategy that shows Gideon’s attitude changing over time. We see his morning routine of Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, Visine and Vivaldi repeatedly, followed by the peppy declaration, “It’s showtime, folks.” He looks more ragged each time he revisits the schtick, and the declaration eventually becomes sarcastic. Occasionally the trick gets heavy-handed; we hear The Standup’s riff on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying looping through hospital halls, obviously freighted with added meaning the second time around. It makes some sense — after working so long cutting those scenes, the sound waveforms of every gag in that film must be tattooed on Gideon’s ear canals — but the lines start to land like cudgels. Still, the approach is consistent. The first half of the film is cut in a way that showcases the winning confidence that puts Joe at the top of his game; later, the style emphasizes Joe’s anxiety at his worsening physical predicament and his despair at the flawed legacy he leaves behind.

Here’s another example, from the film’s first reel: “You finished, or you want to run it again?” comes the voice from the projection booth overlooking the little theater where The Standup is being screened. “No, I do not want to run it again, thank you very much,” answers Gideon from his seat in row two. “We are finished.” Much later, on the cusp of the film’s final reel, we hear the projectionist’s innocent question again as a non-diegetic audio insertion — another one of Gideon’s hallucinations. This time, his response is different, and much weaker: “Yes, I’d like to run it again. I’d like to run the whole thing again.” By now Gideon, who has fled his sickbed and is staggering through random hospital corridors, has had some time to think it over. His arms are raised to a ceiling light fixture; his hands are seen in silhouette as though pressed against an out-of-focus movie screen. (Fosse, who would hire cinematographer Sven Nykvist to shoot his next film, Star 80, was almost certainly paying homage in this moment to Ingmar Bergman and the famous opening images of Persona.) That figurative blank slate represents another movie inside this movie: the biopic Gideon longs to make, the one with the likable protagonist. He’d prefer that to the one he’s already made for himself — the one that he’s stuck inside. In this way, death has become attractive. It is, at least, an escape.

An even more singular achievement is his cinematic approach to the musical numbers, which are never cut to the beat, but are instead cut to highlight performance and story. That is, they showcase the dance — with moves, not edits, placed in sensitive counterpoint to the music — and with dancing and dancers like these, that’s of primary importance. Fosse went a crucial step further, first staging his routines for the proscenium and then reworking them with the idea that the camera is not just recording, but is participating in the action — it’s choreography for camera, and it makes a huge difference. Fosse understood that film editing would allow him to achieve a degree of precision in choreography on screen that was impossible on the stage. “Dancers’ bones broke, but celluloid did not protest,” writes biographer Sam Wasson in his book Fosse.

For the “Take Off with Us” centerpiece that occupies a full eight minutes near the middle of the film, Fosse used two approaches. For the first section of the number, which is an engaging but fairly standard example of Broadway choreography, the camera hops freely from position to position and Heim’s cutting often mickey-mouses against the audio, with edits falling in rhythmic time with the music. As the lights go down and the by-now-sweaty dancers strip for the second, more scandalous “Airotica” section of the number — the one that Gideon springs on his uncomfortable producers without warning — the takes get longer and Heim once again begins cutting based on the performance on screen rather than matching beats and bars. Where the camera previously tracked sideways across the front of the rehearsal studio, taking in the chorus line, now it sits mainly on tripods, the stationary frame highlighting the ways the dancers have partnered up in erotic pantomime. (“Now Sinatra will never record it,” the songwriter mutters, head in hands.) Quick inserts of the band juice up the kinetic action, as do lead dancer Sandahl Bergman’s frenzied gyrations. The primary effect — the depiction of an artistic provocation and its immediate aftermath — is so satisfying that David Fincher and Paula Abdul stole it wholesale for a music video released two years after Fosse’s death in 1987. But their recreation sidesteps the real point of the number, which is about the emptiness of casual sex—of Joe Gideon’s favorite kind of sex. Gideon reads aloud from the script to spell it out, but his voice is nearly drowned in the mix: “Not once during any of our flights have we had the crash of any real human contact or the bumpiness of any real human communication. Our motto is, ‘We take you everywhere but get you nowhere.’”

And it’s moments like that that undercut Fosse’s outward boastfulness with punishing autocritique. All That Jazz is a complex film, not least with regard to Fosse’s intentions in making it. For one thing, he knew that he was getting older. I don’t know how much he worried about the possibility that he could be dead within 10 years but, given his heart problems, that idea had to have crossed his mind. He knew for certain, based on his experience with the failure of Sweet Charity, that if he didn’t have a hit it could become very hard for him to make another movie. As he embarked on All That Jazz, he must have had his own legacy in mind. And there’s the thing about boastfulness. It’s considered bad form, sure, but it’s not necessarily rooted in egotism. It can also grow from insecurity, as a defense against vulnerability, real or imagined. It can be a form of play-acting that keeps the shadows at bay.

You could accurately describe All That Jazz as a musical comedy about death, which is completely accurate, but that shortchanges the visceral sense of fear at the film’s raw and bloody heart — fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of oblivion. I first saw it at the age of 12, and already it held me rapt, dazzled and frightened by the adult world it seemed to reveal. I’ve always experienced it as a horror movie where the monster is mortality. It’s exhilarating but  terrifying. It pushes the bounds of film narrative to create an unsentimental tableau that incorporates grotesque and even cruel fantasy elements. All That Jazz is a remarkable, genuinely epochal achievement, and sometimes I despair that there may never be another one like it. Thirty-five years on, it retains its status as the last great American movie musical.

The Criterion Blu-ray release does not disappoint. The transfer was made from a new 4K master created under the auspices of Twentieth Century Fox’s film library guru, Schawn Belston, and it’s one of those discs that almost perfectly evokes the time and place of its creation. The image has been dust-busted to near perfection without damage to the grain structure and the colors have been timed to be rich but not gaudy (a and there’s an earthiness to the color palette—lots of green, yellow and brown—that somehow conjures New York City in the late 1970s. The image is fairly high contrast, which looks good; if I were to question any aspect of the picture, I’d wonder if a little more shadow detail couldn’t have been retained in some shots where the blacks look a little crushed. (A fairly recent print timed under the supervision of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno was used as reference for this version of the film, and the DP reportedly insisted that the picture be made “much darker,” at least in shots from the “On Broadway” opening number.)

Audio quality is likewise excellent; like the video, it shows its age in the best ways. Bass is tight and only aggressive during the musical numbers, where it adds welcome presence to the track. The stereo mix is three discrete channels up front — left, center, right — with no surround info and includes relatively little in the way of directional effects or stereo separation. In fact, the musical numbers sound more or less monaural, even “On Broadway” and “Take Off With Us,” until Gideon’s hallucinations kick in, when the soundstage opens up. The mix sounds fairly conservative by contemporary standards until you turn it up. Blaring at full tilt, “Bye Bye Love” is glorious — crisp and detailed and distortion-free.

Let’s go deep on the sound mix, shall we? I was unclear on the provenance of this three-channel track. Some sources claim that All That Jazz was blown up to 70mm with magnetic stereo sound tracks, but it doesn’t appear on the generally comprehensive lists posted at in70mm.com. I thought it was just possible that All That Jazz was an early Dolby Stereo title, but wouldn’t that be a four-track mix by definition? By incredible coincidence, I found myself just two degrees of Facebook separation away from a fellow named Glenn Berger, who recorded and mixed the film’s music. I contacted him. He told me that Fosse was suspicious of Dolby Stereo, especially after Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz had used the technology and flopped. Instead, the plan was to play 70mm prints with Berger’s stereo mix on mag audio tracks at premiere engagements in New York and L.A. and then send 35mm prints with dynamic range and frequency range severely compressed for the then-standard mono optical audio format. For reasons Berger didn’t want to get into on our phone call, Fosse nixed the stereo version at the last minute. According to Berger, it was never released anywhere. “That was incredibly crushing for me, and I was convinced that nobody would ever get to hear the movie the way it was meant to be heard,” he told me.

It turns out that “On Broadway” and “Take Off With Us” weren’t mixed in mono, but both numbers were limited in their scope. The George Benson tune was delivered to the production as a finished master track that didn’t support any fiddling with the mix. And on “Take Off With Us” and “Airotica,” Fosse was adamant that no music sources could be added to the mix that didn’t appear on screen, limiting the instrumentation to two keyboards and a drum kit. “He wouldn’t even let us sweeten the track with a bass or anything else to give it some propulsion or oomph,” Berger remembers. “The reason those tracks sound kind of mono-ish is that it was just those three instruments.” In the film’s fantasy sequences, composer Ralph Burns was allowed to use more elaborate orchestrations that lend themselves to a bigger soundstage. He also notes that moviemaking technology of the time meant that he was limited to six tracks on the mixing stage, rather than the unlimited number of tracks that are available with today’s digital mixing consoles.

If you’re a fetishist for authorial intent, don’t fret about the legitimacy of this previously unreleased mix. A few years after the film’s original release, Berger says, it was being considered for a reissue, and Fosse screened a 70mm stereo print at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan. Berger says it was then that he received a letter from Fosse, who said he realized it was a mistake not to release the film in stereo.

The disc is loaded up with well over three hours of extra features, some of them created and curated for this release and others ported from previous Fox DVD releases in 2003 and 2007. If you’re looking to get the biggest return on your time investment, Criterion’s offerings will get you the furthest, fastest. An episode of Tomorrow (31:51; a high-def upconversion of the SD original) features Fosse in conversation with host Tom Snyder and legendary choreographer Agnes De Mille that originally aired on NBC in January 1980. It covers a lot of ground — Fosse talks about how he auditions dancers and what he looks for, Snyder prods both guests about eroticism in dance, and Fosse remembers how creating a TV commercial for Pippin saved that show from obscurity. At one point, Snyder noted that dancers might resent seeing a choreographer’s name above the title even though they’re the ones busting ass on stage every night, plus matinees. De Mille’s magisterial response: “So what?” I gasped out loud in my living room.

Criterion once again goes to the well of The South Bank Show, this time delivering a Fosse interview (27:01, another HD upconversion) that originally aired in March 1981. Fosse really turns on the charm as Melvyn Bragg gets him to open up about his life and times, including his earliest experiences in the world of “very low-class vaudeville” and how it influenced his adult work. Fosse then moves forward through his entire career, discusses his feelings about choreographing dance while taking the movie camera into account, and revealing that Hollywood accountants have determined that it takes him a full shooting day to get each minute of a musical number in the can. During the section that covers All That Jazz, Bragg confronts him with a quote from De Mille, who apparently snarked about Fosse’s work that it has “taken the eroticism out of sex.” Fosse thinks for a moment before landing a return blow, which I won’t spoil here. But, I swear, I gasped out loud again.

An interview with biographer Sam Wasson (20:43) might not sound enticing, but Wasson ably shoulders the burden of describing the greatness of All That Jazz. It’s a really good piece of criticism. Among other observations, he muses on “the conflict between sexy and scary at the same time” in Fosse’s work, connecting it to his early experiences working “really bad places really late at night” in the Midwest. Wasson ultimately posits as Fosse’s major theme “razzle-dazzle, which is the smile that the snake wears … putting a happy face on something that’s not so happy.” The New Yorker critic Hilton Als ably makes a more high-flown case for the film’s masterwork status in a booklet essay that offers a detailed reading of Fosse’s filmmaking style, but Wasson’s analysis really connects on the human level.

A 1986 interview with a verbally hyperactive Gene Shalit (26:14) covers a bit of new ground, with Fosse lamenting the aging process, musing on death and looking back on his love life. “We all know,” Shalit jokes, “the only reason you became a choreographer is: how else can you meet 1500 girls in five days under union auspices?” Near the end, Shalit asks Fosse (who was known for fixating on his bad reviews) if he’d prefer a world without critics. “That’s really a tough question,” Fosse says, considering it for half a moment before deciding, “I wouldn’t mind it.”

Editor Alan Heim is featured on the film’s full-length audio commentary from 2007, which is worth listening to in its entirety despite some stretches of dead air. It includes an anecdote describing how, after the film ballooned past its original $10 million budget at Columbia Pictures, Heim had to scramble to put together a rough assembly and messenger it to California in the hope of convincing another studio to pony up another $10 million so Fosse could shoot the rest of the picture, including the “Bye Bye Love” number and all of the scenes with Jessica Lange. (Alan Ladd Jr. loved the footage and Fox stepped in to put up the extra funds.) Criterion rounded Heim up again for a new HD video interview (15:19) that originated on the 2007 DVD. There’s some overlap with the yak track, but Heim does get to talk about his previous work with Fosse on Lenny, including how the editing of that film informed the script for All That Jazz. He also addresses the follow-up Dorothy Stratten biopic Star 80, remembering an unsuccessful group effort to get Fosse to soften that film’s violent ending. Heim calls it a masterpiece but acknowledges that audiences “really hated it.” Most interesting might be Heim’s recollection of how Fosse insisted, even in the cutting room, that Joe Gideon was not his alter-ego, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. “It was Fosse’s life,” Heim says. “And he just kept denying it.”

The last of the new-for-Blu features is a loose, far-reaching conversation (34:00, HD) between dancers Ann Reinking and Erszebet Foldi. It starts with Foldi’s memories of naively auditioning for Fosse as a ballet student (he liked her “innocence,” she says). They discuss their work together on the film at length, and also compare notes on Fosse’s “crooked look” and how it influences his choreography, with Reinking specifying that it’s Fosse’s background that gives those moves meaning. Subtext, she says, is what takes dance “out of the gymnasium.”

Held over from the 2003 Fox release is a partial audio commentary (34:40) recorded by Roy Scheider in 2001. Scheider talks in helpful, straightforward terms about his and Fosse’s working methods. For example, he says that during the “On Broadway” number he had an earpiece through which Fosse, watching from the balcony, directed him on his interactions with the dancers. After asking Fosse what it feels like to have a heart attack after bypass surgery, he had an assistant director kneel on his chest to get the right feeling for one of his close-ups. He also goes on the record about Richard Dreyfuss’s production-delaying departure from the film before he came on board, and his campaign to get Fosse to take him seriously as an actor. (I’m not clear on whether any footage of Dreyfuss as Joe Gideon was actually shot, much less whether any of it might survive, but that would sure be interesting to see.) We also get some vintage documentary footage of Fosse on set (7:58), which ably demonstrates his interest in finding exactly the right camera angles, as he peers up through a handheld viewfinder, scoping out his trademark low-angle shots from various corners of the set. Another clip from the set has a TV reporter trying to get appropriate sound bites out of Scheider for 3:54.

Does anybody read this far down in these reviews? The remainder of the Fox features amount to little more than barrel scrapings. We get to spend an engaging 3:36 with George Benson, who provides anecdotes about recording his version of “On Broadway” at The Roxy in Los Angeles, although his stories have tenuous relevance to the film itself. “Portrait of a Choreographer” (22:46)  is your typical studio puff piece with an array of screen and stage luminaries (singers, dancers, choreographers) paying tribute to the Great Man. More of the same is on tap in “The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards” (7:50), which has a talking-head gallery including Fosse’s Cabaret singer Liza Minnelli, “You Oughta Know” co-writer Glen Ballard, Devo co-founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” perpetrator Diane Warren and more gushing over the song score. These are accomplished people, yeah, but their assembly here feels very random, like someone held the Capitol Records building upside down, shook it hard, and asked everyone who fell out to talk about All That Jazz.

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