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All That Jazz (Blu-ray Review)

8 Sep, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 Blu-ray/DVD.
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking.

It’s a tragedy that Bob Fosse’s fatal 1987 heart attack on the streets of Washington, D.C., has made his most personal film even more resonant than it seemed 35 years ago, but the movies at their best remain an organic force. Released at year’s end in what turned out to be a successful qualification for the Oscars (I flew from Detroit to New York City to see it) this is more than even a semi-autobiography about another force (of nature). Fosse was a dancer-choreographer-director who was top gun on just five movies in his career (sandwiched by two that were poorly received), yet he still qualifies as one of the major filmmakers of his era. However Fellini-esque Jazz is, this is unmistakably Fosse’s own story (with shared screenwriting credit going to Robert Alan Aurthur). And at least he was influenced by the best (have you ever noticed no one ever says “Fleischer-esque”?).

Just as Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York remains the screen’s only wife-beating musical, as I once heard it termed, Jazz is the only musical I know with graphic footage of open-heart surgery. By the time Fosse directed what was his fourth feature, he had already gone under the knife — and wasn’t shy about admitting that he always had been intrigued by the idea of death, anyway. The screen result is a logical progression that became more personal once he realized that the inclusion of music and dance were necessary to keep a story about life at the utmost edge from becoming a tough-sled bummer to watch. Protagonist Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, perfect) is a filmmaker editing a movie about a standup comic while he’s simultaneously mounting a stage musical while also mounting ladies of the chorus and also smoking too much. Does this description bring to mind anyone you know? Even so, longtime Fosse collaborator and flame-keeper Ann Reinking is a little concerned here in a bonus dual interview with Jazz co-star Erzebet Foldi that people will see this movie, take it to be pure biography and come away not realizing what a nice guy (however exacting) Fosse was.

Fortunately, there’s a further array of extras here that dazzle even by Criterion standards, and three of them are Fosse interviews: one with Tom Snyder and Agnes de Mille on “Tomorrow” just after Jazz came out; another on Britain’s “South Bank” show; and a third one with Gene Shalit (they really seem to hit it off) that was done about a year before Fosse’s death. In all, he is as down-to-earth and self-deprecating as an artist of his stature can be expected to be. When he says he was hurt by the reviews his final film (Star 80) got, you can believe him. And the admission will probably make some want to re-see that picture (it will be the next movie I watch for pleasure — if that’s the word, given the abject unpleasantness of the subject matter).

As for Jazz, I blew hot and cold on it in ’79, but thanks to this release — both in the film’s presentation plus supplements that put the project in full context — I now think it near-masterpiece and certainly one of a kind, whatever its influences. The opening number to George Benson’s recording of “On Broadway” will never be equaled in its delineation of an open “cattle call” stage audition, and that incredible production number’s worth of eros in the middle of the picture — the one where statuesque Midwesterner Sandahl Bergman was obviously from a different county of Kansas than those Oz hayseeds — became a benchmark in the history of the movie musical that hasn’t been matched in more than three decades now. Parts of the picture are still tough to watch, and it peaks on the early side, but the message seems stronger than ever. As Fosse says in one of the interviews here, it isn’t just people in the entertainment industry who fail to smell the coffee (my words, not his) until it is too late. And they may realize it without being able to stop it.

It takes Blu-ray for the artful softness of Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography to register the way it should, something I noticed when I accidentally put the standard DVD in my machine initially before realizing my mistake. Two takeaways from this viewing were a) that there was actually a short period after King Kong when the movies couldn’t figure out to do with Jessica Lange, though Fosse certainly did when he cast her here as an Angel of Death (take me, take me). And b) though Roy Scheider mysteriously seemed to go off the major radar after mid-career (though his voiceover as hapless Judge Julius Hoffman near the end of his life in Chicago 8 is priceless), there are an awful lot of actors who would like to claim the likes of The French Connection, Jaws and this frequent knockout on a resumé.

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