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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: All That Jazz

Not only Bob Fosse but screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur died too young, doubly reinforcing the vivid spiritual premonition of All That Jazz, Fosse’s transfixing 1979 show business musical that blatantly anticipated his own death (eight years later) and Aurthur’s, who died before the film was finished, with Roy Scheider (who died 31 years later but still much too soon) in the autobiographical role of the stage and film director who smokes too much, ingests too much and works until he drops, creating brilliant art every step of the way. Produced by Twentieth Century Fox, the film’s cinematography is itself precarious, often teetering on the imperfections of grain or haze without actually succumbing, and the earlier home video transfer lacked the technological sophistication to support the challenges created by the source material.  The Criterion Collection, however, has issued a thrilling Blu-ray that stabilizes the movie’s image on the exact cusp of its true quality, eliminating the distractions that the unintended imperfections created, enhancing the hues, and allowing the viewer to become completely immersed in Fosse’s amazing creativity death dream, strewn, like discarded cigarette butts, with instinctively truthful vignettes about life during the pauses in development, rehearsal and performance.

The 3.0-channel DTS track is an even more welcome improvement.  The film’s stereo mix was primitive, coaxing a bit of dimensionality out of the music and little else.  The earlier DVD reflected that general concept, and the first number on the BD—the hit recording of George Benson’s cover of On Broadway, played over a lengthy ‘cattle call’ audition sequence—has the same sort of flatness, but that is because it is a record.  Later numbers gain more depth and clarity, when the music in the movie is ‘live.’  It is not a sudden, Cinerama-style aural explosion, but separation details become a bit more distinctive, and the experience a little more involving as a consequence.  When the music isn’t playing, the dialog and effects are significantly less tinny than they are on the Fox DVD.  Even the Criterion DVD that is included in the set is noticeably improved, although not as compellingly as the BD is.

Running 123 minutes, the film is laced with allusions to Fosse’s real life and career—Ben Vereen, one of the stars of Pippin, appears in a Pippin-like staging of Bye Bye Love—and the movie’s final third, its literal ‘last act,’ is a phantasmagorical and simultaneously uncomfortably real hospital sequence.  Fosse himself had heart problems, and yet could not alter his lifestyle sufficiently to avoid the inevitable.  All That Jazz may be as close to an ‘in denial’ suicide note as the movies ever created, and one that you can still sing along to, now in the full glory of Blu-ray playback.

Additionally, there are hours upon hours of special features presented on the BD platter, with many of them also relegated to a second DVD platter.  The pieces cover Fosse extensively, and reinforce how innovative and influential the film became, but one aspect is never mentioned in any of it—how the original stage version of A Chorus Line presaged All That Jazz (not just in the opening ‘cattle call’ sequence, but in the establishing of Ann Reinking as a worthy musical star) and how, as a consequence, All That Jazz stole every last bit of thunder A Chorus Line The Movie had hoped to muster when it finally appeared half a decade later.  Oh, and was there a cattle call for the ‘cattle call’ scene, and what was that like?

But everything else is addressed with great thoroughness.  The editor, Alan Heim, supplies a commentary track, explaining the choices that were made during the cutting of the film (and talking about the night he won the Oscar for doing so), but also speaking quite a bit about working with Fosse in general, the movie’s history (including why, though not mentioning him by name, Richard Dreyfus was dropped from the lead, causing the show to be shut down for an extended period of time), and how much the scenes and details within the movie mirror those in Fosse’s life, even though Fosse would get upset if Heim mentioned it.

Scheider had a fairly good commentary on the Fox DVD and Criterion has boiled down the best parts for a 35-minute segment over scenes from the film.  The 8-minute 1979 behind-the-scenes promotional featurette and 4-minute interview with Scheider that were included on that DVD have also been replicated, along with a trailer.

A number of the other special features were part of a later Fox DVD release, including the Heim commentary; a 23-minute reflection on the film’s choreography that has some great reminiscences by Sandahl Bergman, some good reflections by Liza Minnelli, and a general analysis of Fosse’s dancing style; an 8-minute piece on the movie’s music and how it reinforces the film’s themes; and a 4-minute interview with Benson about how he conceived his cover of On Broadway.

An additional 15-minute interview with Heim, talking about all of the work he did with Fosse, including (with clips) Lenny, but primarily providing the executive summary of his commentary, is original to the BD; along with a 21-minute interview with biographer Sam Wasson, who walks you through a biography of Fosse up to the end of All That Jazz, with clips from Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Kiss Me Kate and more; an excellent interview with Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi (who played the daughter of Scheider’s character) running 35 minutes and talking about Fosse, Scheider, Foldi’s experience (this was the only film she made, as she went on to become a dancer), and Reinking’s career; a fantastic 32-minute clip from a 1980 episode of the late night talk show, Tomorrow, featuring the now forgotten Tom Snyder (Dan Aykroyd’s imitation has outlasted him) with Fosse and Agnes de Mille, who joke around together and share some wonderful stories about Broadway musicals and everything else; a 1981 episode from the British interview program, South Bank Show, with Fosse exclusively, running 27 minutes and focusing on the film and Fosse’s career; and a fine Gene Shalit interview with Fosse from 1986 running 26 minutes, which in some ways is more superficial than the other two interviews, with sillier or more generalized questions, but makes a very good complement to them when the three are combined in a sitting.

 

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“I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover something in them – when I can get something out of them that I can share with people. The week I quit, I hadn’t planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this. One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, Scenes From a Mall. I couldn’t write another bad review of Bette Midler. I thought she was so brilliant, and when I saw her in that terrible production of ‘Gypsy’ on television, my heart sank. And I’d already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when you have to pan the same people a few years later, it tears your spirits apart.”
~ Pauline Kael On Quitting

“My father was a Jerome. My daughter’s middle name is Jerome. But my most vexing and vexed relationship with a Jerome was with Jerome Levitch, the subject of my first book under his stage and screen name, Jerry Lewis.

I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

~ Biographer Shawn Levy on Jerry Lewis on Facebook