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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’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many recappers, while clearly over their heads, are baseline sympathetic to finding themselves routinely unmoored, even if that means repeating over and over that this is closer to “avant-garde art” than  normal TV to meet the word count. My feed was busy connecting the dots to Peter Tscherkassky (gas station), Tony Conrad (the giant staring at feedback of what we’ve just seen), Pat O’Neill (bombs away) et al., and this is all apposite — visual and conceptual thinking along possibly inadvertent parallel lines. If recappers can’t find those exact reference points to latch onto, that speaks less to willful ignorance than to how unfortunately severed experimental film is from nearly all mainstream discussions of film because it’s generally hard to see outside of privileged contexts (fests, academia, the secret knowledge of a self-preserving circle working with a very finite set of resources and publicity access to the larger world); resources/capital/access/etc. So I won’t assign demerits for willful incuriosity, even if some recappers are reduced, in some unpleasantly condescending/bluffing cases, to dismissing this as a “student film” — because presumably experimentation is something the seasoned artist gets out of their system in maturity, following the George Lucas Model of graduating from Bruce Conner visuals to Lawrence Kasdan’s screenwriting.”
~ Vadim Rizov Goes For It, A Bit

“On the first ‘Twin Peaks,’ doing TV was like going from a mansion to a hut. But the arthouses are gone now, so cable television is a godsend — they’re the new art houses. You’ve got tons of freedom to do the work you want to do on TV, but there is a restriction in terms of picture and sound. The range of television is restricted. It’s hard for the power and the glory to come through. In other words, you can have things in a theater much louder and also much quieter. With TV, the quieter things have to be louder and the louder things have to be quieter, so you have less dynamics. The picture quality — it’s fine if you have a giant television with a good speaker system, but a lot of people will watch this on their laptops or whatever, so the picture and the sound are going to suffer big time. Optimally, people should be watching TV in a dark room with no disturbances and with as big and good a picture as possible and with as great sound as possible.”
~ David Lynch