Tuesday, November 30, 2010

All That Jazz (1979)

          Inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2  (1963), All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s arresting rumination on the limitations of his own character and talent, seen through the prism of an onscreen doppelganger. The movie depicts a tumultuous chapter in the life of film director/choreographer/theater director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), who juggles the challenges of transforming a hokey stage musical into something fresh with long hours spent obsessively refining his latest movie, a biopic about a comedian that echoes Fosse’s Lenny (1974). Gideon also juggles intense relationships with several women, including a wife (Leland Palmer) and a girlfriend (Ann Reinking) driven to distraction by Gideon’s infidelities. Yet the protagonist’s true love might actually be Death, portrayed as an angelic beauty by Jessica Lange, because since his earliest days as a youth performer in raunchy burlesque shows (as shown in stylized dream sequences/flashbacks), Gideon’s been fascinated by the high-wire act of risking disastrous failure in order to chase extraordinary success. He’s also deeply aware of his own shortcomings, afraid of being discovered as a fraud who squanders his talent, and, as one insightful friend notes, terrified that in the final analysis, he might be—horror of horrors!—“ordinary.”
          The plentiful parallels to Fosse’s real life accentuate just how unflattering a self-portrait Fosse paints: Gideon is a perfectionist, philandering, pill-popping pain in the ass whom friends and colleagues somehow love anyway, because he’s so damn interesting and talented. So like Gideon, Fosse does a high-wire act, seeking to balance ego-tripping narcissism and merciless self-analysis. As a result, All That Jazz a film of rare psychological complexity and depth. Scheider gives the most nuanced and surprising performance of his career, beautifully depicting every contradictory aspect of the main character; the decidedly nonmusical performer even dives headfirst into a full-on musical number, and looks graceful guiding dancers through their moves (with a cigarette dangling from his lips, Fosse-style). Fosse cast real-life dancers Palmer and Reinking in the principal female roles, because their characters communicate with Gideon through exquisite body language, and few films integrate dance as fully into storytelling as All That Jazz, which seethes with the eroticism of artists whose bodies are their lives.
          Fosse justifies his razzle-dazzle reputation by presenting tasty clips from Gideon’s film-in-progress as well as a handful of jaw-dropping musical numbers, the standout of which is “Take Off With Us,” a nudity-drenched showstopper about casual sex that only the wicked Fosse could conceive and execute. All That Jazz tends to polarize viewers, with some dismissing it as an overwrought exercise in navel-gazing, but I’m among the partisans who consider it one of the sharpest character studies ever filmed. Watch for Wallace Shawn in a funny bit as a bean-counting producer, John Lithgow as a pompous theater director forever overshadowed by Gideon’s accomplishments, and the great actor/dancer Ben Vereen as an entertainer who takes showbiz obsequiousness to an otherworldly extreme.

All That Jazz: OUTTA SIGHT


Heli0tr0pe said...

Nice poster!

Tommy Ross said...

I spent four years as an advisor for Brooks Film School, helping young people get into the business. In many lengthy discussions on the great and legendary directors of cinema, the ones always mentioned are Coppola, Scorcese, Kubrick, etc. But nobody ever mentions Bob Fosse. All That Jazz and Cabaret alone validate him to be mentioned and included with that company of legends.

Unknown said...

When I die, I want Death to look like Jessica Lange.

jf said...

I had a friend who saw this EIGHTEEN times when it was in its original theatrical release. For a while, if you wanted to hang out with him, you were gonna go see "All That Jazz." I think I saw it 6 times myself.

Ben said...

Saw this about a year ago and was really impressed.