Friday, January 8, 2010

Reeling Backward: "All That Jazz"

Thematically and structurally, "All That Jazz" is pretty similar to "Nine," the new movie musical that underwhelmed me. So how come I liked this 1979 film waaaay more?

"Jazz" is director/choreographer Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical take on his crazy life in the mid-1970s, when he was staging the Broadway musical "Chicago" while simultaneously editing his film "Lenny." It's a narcissistic, self-absorbed portrait of the tortured artist -- but an often thrilling one.

Much of the film's enjoyment is derived, of course, from the wonderful dancing. Ann Reinking in particular is a revelation as Kate Jagger, the girlfriend of Joe Gideon, the Fosse stand-in. Reinking embodies the long-limbed, sensual style of dance that Fosse epitomized, and all her dance scenes are knockouts.

My favorite bit is the somewhat impromptu show Kate and Joe's daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi, in her only screen role) put on for him in his apartment to "Everything Old Is New Again." Click the link to watch it on YouTube; it's a playful, wondrous delight.

Joe Gideon is played by Roy Scheider in perhaps his greatest role. It's not what you'd expect, since Scheider was the ultimate cinematic man's man in movies like "Jaws," "Marathon Man" and "The French Connection."

He's cast against type as the flamboyant Gideon, who is a workaholic, drug addict and rogue who sleeps around haphazardly, but is enraged when Kate does the same thing to him.

One of the film's signature bits is a quick montage of Joe's morning ritual -- Vivaldi music on tape deck, Visine for reddened eyes, popping pills, shower and a cynical declaration to his mirrored reflection, "It's showtime, folks!"

Perhaps the most memorable sequence from the film is the opening scene, a six-minute open casting call for Joe's new show. Hundreds of dancers go through their routines in unison, trying desperately to stand out and catch the famed choreographer's eye. Joe personally informs every dancer he rejects, which lets you know that even though he's a prick, he's not a heartless one.

Interspersed throughout the film are hallucinatory encounters with Joe's muse/angel/interlocutor, played by Jessica Lange in white raiment. She asks him about his life, needles him and flirts with him.

Another favorite scene was the one where Joe presents his choreography of the show to his financial backers. The first sequence is a sexy romp that pleases them mightily, but then it segues into a darkened mass of naked bodies and writhing limbs. It's brilliant -- Joe's ex-wife, Audrey (Leland Palmer), dubs it his best work ever -- but it scares the bejeezus out of the producers, who worry about losing the family crowd.

Joe gets sick halfway through production, and the show goes on hiatus while he recovers. The final long sequence is a showstopper performance with Joe as the star, Ben Vereen as MC, and Audrey and Kate as the principle dancers. It's sung to "Bye Bye Love," in a mournful and prophetic rendition that I'm sure the Every Brothers never imagined.

I'm not sure if "All That Jazz" really amounts to anything. As autobiography, it rings false since it's about a guy who comes to accept death, and obviously Bob Fosse kept on living, since he directed the movie. But it's a weird and wonderful celebration of the Fosse style.

3.5 stars

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