The movie musical has been on life support ever since the untimely death of Bob Fosse. That’s not to say there haven’t been some visually impressive, slickly packaged attempts at reviving the genre, but no one has come close to the skill or depth of his work. He grounded the movie musical in the real world in a way no one has, before or since. All That Jazz is his masterpiece and depending on when you ask me, my all time favorite movie. It is the semi-auto biographical story of Joe Gideon (Roy Schneider), famed director of stage and screen, who works, chain smokes and pops speed until his heart gives out. And at the end, in spite of all his failures as a father, husband, and lover, he is able to look back on a life lived to the fullest with joy and gratitude.
Fosse’s greatest strength as a storyteller was the economy of his revelation. There are very few “talky scenes” and most take place while people are moving. A student of Sanford Meisner’s, Fosse never used three words when two would do. Gesture and behavior were always preferable to conversation. Nothing’s ever on the nose. Each scene circles it’s point, prowling-like. A look, or a glance betrays the heartbreak Joe inflicts on those who love him and yet, you find yourself rooting for him, caring for him, cheering him on.
The opening sequence of the film is a stunning feat of artistry by the end of which, we’ve met all but one of our main characters and have a clear understanding of how they all feel about each other. We’re introduced to Gideon with 12 shots and in less than a minute are given everything we need to know about him.
In a bathroom: A tape is pressed into a deck, a finger presses play, we hear classical music. Visine is dropped into a blood shot eye. Alka-Seltzer drops into a glass. A man looks at himself in a mirror next to a framed poster of dancing legs. The tape deck reads “Total Automatic Shutoff.” In the shower, the man takes a cigarette from his mouth, having forgotten it was there. A prescription bottle: “Dexedrine… Joe Gideon.” The pills are popped into the mouth of the man. Visene drops into his eyes.
In a netherworld: The man walks a tight rope, “To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” A mysterious woman looks on, “That’s very theatrical Joe.” “Yeah, I know.” “Did you make it up?” “I wish I had. You like it?” “It’s all right.” He falls into a net.
In a bathroom: The man looks at himself in the mirror, forces a smile, “It’s showtime folks.”
We cut to an audition and hear the piano opening of George Benson’s “On Broadway.” Dancers stretch nervously. We’re tight on a few learning a routine and slowly pull out to reveal the entire stage, jam packed with hundreds of dancers. In the house sit the producers and the composer, Gideon’s ex-wife/star of the show and their daughter. The sequence plays out almost entirely in MOS and what dialogue is audible is sparse.
Joe looks at an audition card, “Victoria Porter. Is this your home number?” She smiles and nods coquettishly.
With one line and two shots, it’s clear what game is afoot.
While the thrust of the opening sequence is all about character revelation and setting up what’s to come, it happens in and around Fosse’s gorgeous choreography. It all feels voyeuristic, as through you’re hiding in the rafters, watching the audition. No one’s performing for the camera. They’re all performing for Joe. And when he let’s them go, with a kind touch on the shoulder and an empathetic head shake, it’s clear he doesn’t relish this part of the gig. Two dancers hurry down the stairs to the street, “Oh fuck him, he never picks me.” “Honey I did fuck him and he never picks me either.”
The film moves back and forth between Joe’s reality (rehearsing a show, cutting a film and screwing up all his relationships) and a fantasy netherworld suggestive of the dressing room of an old vaudeville theater. Here Joe looks back on his life with a mysterious, veiled woman (Jessica Lang) who is later revealed to be the angel of death. It is here he is able to fess up to the mess he’s made of his personal life. Back in the real world it’s all missed opportunities and delivered lines. After a fight with his girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinkin, Fosse’s real life girlfriend), Roy snaps from the bathroom, “Katie, about the goddamned tour, I don’t think you should go.” “Wrong reading.” She calls to him. He walks into the bedroom, “Softly and with feeling. Don’t go… Please?” But in the netherworld, Joe questions, “Why do you suppose she put up with it?” “Oh, I can think of many reasons for wanting to be with you.” “Now don’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
For those whose knee jerk reaction to the genre is something akin to gagging on rotten brussel sprouts, All That Jazz doesn’t feel like a musical. It would be more fair to call it a movie with music. The performance numbers come organically out of the circumstances of the story: an audition, rehearsals, a living room performance for daddy by daughter, a deathbed hallucination. Unlike today’s MTV mimicking musicals, Fosse lets his dance pieces play out almost entirely in wide shots. He uses judicious editing to build tension and pace. He has faith that the choreography is compelling enough to drive a scene without chaotic jump cuts to close ups of forearms and legs. When he does chose quick, dicing cuts to close ups, their affect is powerful. He builds to it, using it sparingly. (What a novel idea!?) This sense of shape and build isn’t just apparent on a micro level in each sequence, it’s clearly his approach to the film as a whole. Modern musicals have no dynamics. Chicago, Moulin Rouge, Hairspray, from the jump all of them are at “11,” shoving singing and dancing down your throat. There’s very little difference between the energy of the first big number and that of the last. The opening of All That Jazz is languid, measured. The camera barely moves. You take time with the characters and their movements. You hold on facial expressions. But as Joe moves closer and closer to death the cuts between fantasy and reality become more frequent until the line is erased completely and it all blurs together. The final sequence, the death bed hallucination, is an eye popping, quick cutting song and dance extravaganza that makes you feel like you just dropped some acid before doing a few lines of blow.
If there is a weakness in this film it is that final sequence. It is the only portion that doesn’t subscribe to the “Less is More” philosophy. It goes on for what feels like an eternity and just when you think it’s all over, the music begins to build back up and Gwen Verdon and Anne Reinking, clothed in vein-y body suits, snap back to attention and dance around Joe’s hospital bed as he undergoes open heart surgery. But even though it all feels like too much, it creates a shocking contrast to the final moment: a close up of a lifeless Joe zipped into an opaque body bag, the sound of the zipper cutting through the music.
It is a real shame that no one since Fosse has realized the true potential of the movie musical. He understood that character can and should shape form and function. Just because you can cut a dance sequence with in an inch of it’s life, doesn’t mean you should. And in most cases, such ginsu knife work does nothing but undercut the impact of your story. Here’s hoping some young filmmaker comes along and picks up the mantle Bob dropped. The culture could use a little nuance in it’s song and dance.
Beckylooo Who is a newly minted television writer. Don’t ask which show. Further rantings and ravings can be found at If A TV Falls in the Woods.
All That Jazz / Beckylooo Who
Film | June 26, 2008 | Comments ()