|Bye Bye Life|
Dir. Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider,
Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer,
Ann Reinking, Deborah Geffner, Ben Vereen, Cliff Gorman,
Erzsébet Földi, John Lithgow, Keith Gordon, Sandahl Bergman
Review By Greg Klymkiw
To my knowledge, All That Jazz is the only musical that is completely fuelled by self-destruction and death. Though Herbert Ross's joyously bleak 1981 Pennies From Heaven (from Dennis Potter's 1978 BBC mini-series) is equally infused with self-destruction and death, none of it is at all intentional as it is in this thinly-veiled autobiographical belly flop into the mind of Broadway choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), standing in for director and co-writer Bob Fosse.
In the course of one year during the mid-70s, Fosse directed three major undertakings - the original Broadway stage production of Chicago, the harrowing motion picture biopic of doomed comedian Lenny Bruce with Dustin Hoffman in the title role and the massive live-to-tape television special Liza with a Z starring his original Sally Bowles from the Oscar-winning Cabaret. Anyone who has directed even one of the aforementioned knows how energy-draining and soul-sucking the process can be. Fosse did all three at once. He also suffered from epilepsy, smoked five packs of cigarettes per day, popped scads of uppers, drank like a fish, slept with at least one different woman every night and was "unexpectedly" hit with heart disease, which, subsequently led to Fosse undergoing open-heart surgery.
They don't make 'em like Bob Fosse anymore.
All That Jazz is the borderline avant-garde, semi-realist, semi-fantastical, and dazzlingly Fellini-esque musical rumination upon the aforementioned period of Fosse's life. Call it self indulgent if you will, but it's one hell of a great show.
Opening with a massive audition sequence with hundreds of dancers on the stage, slowly weeded out by Gideon to the strains of George Benson crooning "On Broadway", punctuated by early morning rituals of Vivaldi on his tape deck, squirting drops liberally into his bloodshot eyes, popping dexedrine and washing it down with fizzy alka-seltzer and then, ever-gazing at himself in the bathroom mirror as he utters his "It's showtime, folks!" mantra, we're privy to an insider's look at showbiz unlike any other. Whether Gideon's driving his dancers to tears - especially a leggy clodhopper (Deborah Geffner) he's recently bedded down - obsessively cutting his movie to get the performance of his leading actor (Cliff Gorman) 110%, being a super-cool dad to his daughter (Erzsébet Földi) and privately tutoring her in dance, commiserating with his wife (Leland Palmer) whom he still loves but can't live with (or rather, in all truthfulness, vice-versa), loving but not committing to his long suffering-girlfriend (Ann Reinking), tossing all his choreography out the window and re-jigging it with a hot blonde (Sandahl Bergman) as lead dancer in a piece drenched with nudity, sex and every conceivable carnal coupling, Fosse fashions a veritable kaleidoscope out of Gideon's life - and by extension, his life.
As if this wasn't enough to keep our jangled eyeballs glued to the screen, Fosse delivers a series of fantastical flash forwards with Gideon recounting his life and philosophies to Death (Jessica Lange). Yes, I kid you not, DEATH. And what a babe Death turns out to be. This is Lange's second film just after the 70s Dino De Laurentiis King Kong and Fosse's got her dolled-up head to toe in pure popsicle licking-and-sucking ice-goddess-white.
Of course, some of the most delightfully engaging and sexy conversations in the movie occur twixt the two characters. Gideon knows he can't bullshit Death and Death is rather charmed and amused by Gideon's antics. Besides, the more insanely self-destructive he is, the sooner she can claim Gideon to walk towards the white light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps the most telling exchange between them is when Death (or Angelique as she's listed in the credits) asks if he believes in love and his response is a very forthright: "I believe in saying, 'I love you.'"
And oh, does Gideon profess his love to all the women in his life: left, right, centre, up, down and sideways. At one point, as he's rushed down a hospital corridor on a gurney, he imagines his wife on one side of him and his girlfriend on the other. To his wife, he says, "If I die, I'm sorry for all the bad things I did to you." To his girlfriend he says, "If I live, I'm sorry for all the bad things I'm going to do to you." For Gideon, love hurts - just so long as he's not the one being hurt. After all, he only really loves one person, himself, and he's more than happy to hurt himself. In Gideon's eyes, Self-destruction doesn't count. Though he's a liar, cheat, bully, braggart and son of a bitch, we can't help but love him (and neither, of course, can he). As played by the super-manly-man tough guy Roy Scheider, Gideon's allowed to be artistic in what some might consider an effete profession - but good, goddamn, he's all MAN!!! Fosse gives us plenty of reasons to like Gideon. It's as if we're given permission to like this charming, chain-smoking, sex-charged prick.
Gideon, you see, is the ultimate choreographer. Not only does he choreograph his Broadway shows, he choreographs every aspect of his life, his friendships, his collaborations and his love relationships. They're all choreographed to satisfy him. He assumes, nay - demands - that what gives him pleasure is pleasure enough for all. Of course, since he has the self-appointed (anointed) power to choreograph his life, it stands to reason he's ultimately going to choreograph his ultimate production.
Speaking of which, the musical production numbers in the film, whether they're within a rehearsal context or eventually in full-blown movie-musical splendour during Gideon's open-heart-surgery reveries (yup, his hedonism leads to the Big One), Fosse continually enchants the eye and keeps one's toes a tapping. And nothing in recent decades has been quite as spectacular as the aforementioned "ultimate" Joe Gideon production - the man gets to choreograph his own death.
And what a death Gideon gives himself - a stunning showstopper of a number that includes a full band onstage, lights to trip fantastic to, agile chorus girls (and boys) spinning and gyrating with abandon, a full house including everyone and anyone of any consequence in his life, some of whom he dashes madly into the aisles to personally say farewell to and if that's not enough, the whole thing is set to a crazily funky rendition of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love", sung and danced by the astounding Ben Vereen with the word "Love" replaced by "Life". Hell, Gideon even gets a shot at crooning and engaging in pelvic whirligigs atop a glittery pinnacle with master showman Vereen.
"Bye Bye Life, Bye Bye happiness. . . Hello emptiness, I think he's gonna die. . . Goodbye your life, Goodbye. . . I think I'm gonna die!"Bye, bye life, indeed.
Fosse won his directing Oscar for the phenomenal Cabaret, but it's here (and his subsequent Star 80, still begging for a proper home video release), where he really outdid himself. His direction of his own choreography is especially revealing. If one thinks, if even for just a moment, about any of Fosse's choreography in the film, it becomes readily apparent that all the numbers are staged in ways that would never work in a traditional proscenium context. This, ironically, is in marked contrast to the abysmal direction of the inexplicably-lauded film version of Fosse's Chicago wherein the boneheaded Rob Marshall directed choreography that might have worked on a stage, but is respectively, pathetically and laughably shot and cut with tin eyes and big old ham-fists.
Fosse is a filmmaker - the real thing! Like a few greats before him, most notably Busby Berkeley, Fosse directs and choreographs all the numbers for the camera - it's pure, joyous, unadulterated cinema. It also doesn't hurt that Fosse's cinematographer is none other than frequent Fellini lenser Giuseppe Rotunno. A canny-enough choice given some of the resemblance All That Jazz has, in homage, to 8-and-a-Half.
It's a marvel watching All That Jazz again on a superior format like Blu-Ray. It's not only as sumptuous and exciting as it was when it first unspooled on film in 1979, it's probably the next best thing to owning your own pristine 35mm print. In a contemporary context, Fosse's great picture feels even fresher and bolder today than I imagined it to be 35-years-ago.
And save, for all the endlessly delightful scenes showing doctors, including heart surgeons (!!!), chain smoking cigarettes, that's about the only thing in the film that feels even remotely dated.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
And WOW! The Criterion Collection continues to outdo themselves. This gorgeously transferred dual-format (Blu-Ray AND DVD) home entertainment package in an all-new 4K digital restoration, with 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, has OWN ME written all over it. The extra features are an absolute bounty. The 40-minute scene-specific commentary by Roy Scheider really knocks this one out of the park. He offers considerable insight into his role, the working relationship he had with Fosse and even the filmmaking process. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying this added-value feature, but it's an absolute must for actors to cherish (burgeoning or otherwise).
There are numerous interview segments with editor Alan Heim, Fosse biographer Sam Wasson, actors Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi, plus an astonishing episode of the talk show "Tomorrow" from 1980, featuring Fosse and legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille. There are also two superb in-depth interview with Fosse from the 80s, one of which, conducted by Gene Shalit, is shockingly well done.
As if that's not enough, there are two full length documentaries on the making of the film, on-set footage, featurettes on the film's music (including one with George Benson) and a lovely booklet with a decent essay. The only mild disappointment is the feature length commentary by editor Heim who is either far too silent through most of the film, far too anecdotal (delivering information we already know from the added documentaries) and when it comes to discussing the cutting, he's far too general and not very specific. A minor quibble, though. There's plenty here to keep you engaged for a lifetime.