Bob Fosse was the high priest of showbiz heaven and hell, seeing entertainment as religious rapture created by the two-faced beast of God and Devil. All That Jazz is his most exuberant testament (as in, last will and…) to joyous performance and pizzazz. It is certainly the most exhilarating movie musical about a Godlike creator destroying his essence by excessive drugs, booze, and sex, a paean to failed open-heart surgery and the joie de vivre of Death. It is Fosse’s death mask. Criterion has now released a big, splashy comprehensive edition of this one of a kind film, a release that is more than a deluxe treatment of a film. It is a celebration of the essence of Fosse.
Roy Scheider stars in an atypical role as hard-driving film and Broadway director/choreographer Joe Gideon and it charts his five day decent into a heart attack, open heart surgery and death as he races in a nicotine frenzy staging a Broadway bound musical and editing his latest film to completion. Between rehearsals and editing sessions, he attempts some unsuccessful personal connections with his estranged wife Audrey (Leland Palmer, a stage performer delivering a charismatic film performance here), his current girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking) and his loving daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi). All the while, Joe, in hallucinatory mode, flirts with the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange).
All That Jazz is an almost documentary depiction of Bob Fosse’s life in the early ’70s. In 1972, Fosse made history as the only person to win an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy (for Cabaret, Pippin, and Liza With a Z) in the same year. After this Fosse suffered a major heart attack and underwent multiple bypass heart surgery. He then landed back in the hospital a few years later as he rushed back and forth across Broadway in a drug and booze induced haze as he prepared Chicago for its Broadway opening and edited Lenny for release. (In All That Jazz, Lenny is called The Stand Up and the middlebrow Broadway show he is struggling with is based on Pippin.) And in the private Fosse world, Leland Palmer’s Audrey is a thinly veiled version of Gwen Verdon, while Ann Reinking’s Kate is, well, Ann Reinking. Foldi’s Michelle is an artist’s version of Fosse’s own daughter Nicole (who makes a cameo appearance in All That Jazz as a dancer stretching her legs by a candy machine).
Much like Woody Allen in another film of that era, Stardust Memories, Fosse is under the influence of the middle-period Fellini of 8½, detailing the trials and tribulations of a film director in the process of artistic creation, replete with the attendant ritual dream sequences and phantasmagoria. That and Joe’s bantering with the Angel of Death make for many a pretentious passage in an otherwise dynamic film. But perhaps, since the bulk of All That Jazz is in its great musical numbers and Alan Heim’s high-powered, fragmentary editing technique, these brief moments of ponderousness are needed for a breather (much like Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera gave movie audiences in 1935 a chance to regroup and head to the toilets before the next routine).
And, to be sure, the musical numbers, hands down, cannot be matched. This film was made in 1979 but nothing since then in film musicals has come even close.
We can start with the opening cattle call production number, set to George Benson’s rendition of “On Broadway” – five minutes of rhythmic perfection and precision editing. Fosse encapsulates in a few minutes what it took three hours for A Chorus Line to achieve. There is the “Airotica” dress rehearsal for the producers of the musical show that transforms from a typical in-your-face Broadway show stopper to an all-out sexual and erotic love ritual (“Now Sinatra will never record it,” bemoans the composer). The climactic number, “Bye Bye Life,” teeters precariously on the edge of madness, as Joe sings a charged duet with Ben Vereen and two women in skin tight artery costumes, as he bids farewell to all his friends, enemies, and family, shuffling off his mortal coil in true Broadway style. But leading up to “Bye Bye Life” are four take-no-prisoners performances with Palmer, Reinking, and Foldi (much like the back to back to back to back production numbers at the end of Sondheim’s Follies) that take no prisoners and kill for real. There is also a nice little razzle dazzle show stopper appearing post-“On Broadway” that Reinking and Foldi perform for Scheider in Joe’s apartment to Peter Allen’s “Everything Old is New Again,” reflecting upon on Joe’s love of family beneath his show business perfectionism. Also, we get two nice quiet semi-dance numbers, one with Joe helping his daughter with her ballet moves and the other with Joe arguing with Audrey as Audrey goes through her dance rehearsal and exercises. All of the musical numbers in All That Jazz send the film into another solar system.
All That Jazz offers the Fosse oeuvre at its greatest heights and also at its nuttiest depths. What other movie musical offers footage of graphic open heart surgery and, as its final shot, a dead body being zipped up in a body bag as Ethel Merman is heard singing, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” What more do you want? As Joe remarks to God at one point in the film, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like musical comedy?”
The extensive extras offer the equivalent of a MOOC course on The Art of Bob Fosse. Alan Heim, Fosse’s groundbreaking editor, offers an audio commentary with the film. Roy Scheider’s older scene-specific audio commentary from 2001 is also available. Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi appear in a 2014 discussion of the Fosse style. There is a great full length Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder episode with Fosse and Agnes DeMille and another Alan Heim interview from 2014. Sam Wasson, author of the recent book Fosse, discusses Fosse’s life and art. The South Bank Show from 1981 has a wide-ranging interview with Fosse. Gene Shalit steps up to the plate with a Fosse interview from 1987 as Fosse prepares for his last Broadway show Big Deal (which, incidentally, flopped big time). There is some “on the set” footage of Fosse directing the “On Broadway” number, along with a brief interview with Scheider. A 2007 documentary, Portrait of a Choreographer, is a talking head tribute to Fosse. Rounding out the pack is The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards from 2007, along with George Benson from 2007 recalling his recording of the tune “On Broadway.” And, of course, the trailer. Hilton Als of The New Yorker provides an essay on the film.
This is Criterion at it’s best. For anyone on the edge about All That Jazz, watching this disc will lean you to the Fosse side. As Leland Palmer remarks to Roy Scheider in All That Jazz, “This is the best work you’ve ever done, you sonofabitch!”