There’s a moment in All That Jazz that’s probably as empathetic to the working lives of artists as any the movies have ever offered. Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a legendary theater and film director who’s trying to construct a dance sequence around a song that’s been imposed on his show. It’s a bauble, one of those banal toe-tappers that have been cynically constructed to appeal to elderly ticket buyers, and we’ve already been with Joe long enough to know that he’s in the idealistic business of producing great personal art. We’ve seen snippets of the choreography so far, and Victoria (Deborah Geffner), the kind of young, leggy, and heartbreakingly statuesque dancer who Joe typically eats for breakfast, isn’t getting it, and they both know it. Joe offers as much consolation as is possible without misleading her. He whispers to Victoria that he won’t be able to make her a great dancer, and probably not even a good one, but he guarantees that he can make her better. That, for her, for this moment, is going to have to be enough.
This brief, poignant duet embodies the wizardly tightrope that director Bob Fosse manages to walk in scene after scene. The film isn’t Victoria’s story, of course, but Joe’s, and he’s a very thinly veiled stand-in for Fosse. Victoria most obviously symbolizes the realization of Joe’s worst fears of failure and insignificance, but we’re also allowed to feel her pain, and to sense Joe’s own attempt to feel it. So an almost omniscient form of triple-awareness is achieved: of Joe’s situation, of Victoria’s, and of the gulf of understanding that exists between the two because Joe, despite his wonderful advice in rehearsal, can only relate to Victoria through the context of what he requires of her for his work, his lifeblood. His “humanity” here is really an act of pragmatically necessary performance art. This triple-awareness is also extended, with gradually escalating emotional urgency, toward the women who truly matter to Joe: his ex-wife and collaborator, Audrey (Leland Palmer), his girlfriend, Katie (Ann Reinking), and his daughter, Michelle (Erzsébet Földi), all of whom are often shown, tellingly, as having to necessarily engage with him through dance in masterfully staged encounters that bridge Fosse’s psychologically expressive choreography with a Bergman-ish level of confessional intimacy.
All That Jazz is so head-spinning because it’s a deeply felt, deeply stylish, deeply alive movie about disconnection, degradation, and estrangement that abounds in lewd, boozy, intellectualized poetry. The fusion of those various contrasts was Fosse’s great specialty, and it’s right there, subsumed, in the film’s rococo photography and, especially, in the amazing dance numbers, which revel in a tone of macabre erotica that contextualizes Joe’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement vis-à-vis his sex fantasies and death wishes (dying, the ultimate stage exit, absolves Joe of selflessness). The dancers’ movements, particularly in the “Air-otica” number, have a heightened sense of clipped, curt abbreviation, as if you’re watching less an act of symbolic fuck-play than a haunting ode to commercialized coitus interruptus that’s sexy by sheer force of invention and will. The sense of contrast isn’t just thematic but physical: the choreography asserts the stifling angularity of the limbs, but also the luscious, freeing curviness of the breasts and asses, and the sculpted compactness of the pecs and abs, all somehow equally, while the lighting appears to encase everyone in a black metallic sheen of playful, industrialized sin that would incalculably influence pop culture in a manner that’s most immediately and obviously evident in MTV and films like Flashdance and A Chorus Line.
This film is also a condensed speed-freak epic. You feel, through the prismatic editing, that you’ve watched a four-hour movie in half the time. Fosse conveys Joe’s momentary sensory highs, while showing them to be a part of an overall feeling of apartness, of detachment. Joe often appears to see life as irreconcilable particles, and Fosse doesn’t make the traditional puritanical error of hypocritically blaming sexual or chemical pleasure for his hero’s problems. These are merely symptoms of perpetual restlessness; if Joe could enjoy them, he’d probably be healthier. Fosse’s one of the great visionaries in that his visions appear organic and nearly tossed-off. The last half hour of the film is composed of one huge conceptual number after another, all rich in symbols, riffs, and homages, yet you never lose sight of the irony that the pageantry represents a communal catharsis that’s imagined by an essentially lonely individual. Joe’s so dictatorial he must even write the lines, in his mind, that his daughter is to say to him upon his death.
All That Jazz is Fosse’s assertion that he can make art out of anything—an observation that Pauline Kael once offered about the director, though in a context that she didn’t intend as a compliment. Joe redeems a contrived song by reconstructing it as a monument to his debauched, melancholy sense of self-absorption, and he enlivens his impending death in a similar fashion. Joe’s partially copping out (he’s one of those who evades intimate action with bottomless apology; as he memorably says, he believes less in love than in saying “I love you”), and Fosse knows it, just as he knows that knowing it doesn’t ultimately matter without evidence of behavioral revision, which he evades through the creation of his art, which can trigger a communal rhapsody in strangers that eludes its creator. The source of the film’s disconcertingly contradictory power resides in its understanding that, for the loved ones left in the wake of Joe’s aloof remoteness, the art, no matter how amazing it is for us, ultimately isn’t enough.
This transfer offers an image that’s less refurbished than one can typically expect from the Criterion Collection. Grain has been subtly cleaned up, but quite a bit remains, particularly in the background. Colors, most prominently the reds and the flesh tones, are sometimes garishly bold and waxy. In other words, Criterion has honored and retained the film’s lurid aesthetic, and has admirably resisted a modernizing sanitation that might be prettier, but that would represent a compromise and partial loss of the film’s identity. Colors are deep, though, and clarity, where intended, is impressive. Textural detail is also abundant. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 track is the robust show pony a film this sonically ambitious requires, as it intricately balances the huge effects (the musical numbers) with the subtle nuances (say, the synchronization of shoes on floors of varying surfaces).
There isn’t a lot of brand new material, and the interviews with editor Alan Helm and Fosse biographer Sam Wasson could stand to be longer and more detailed. The 30-minute conversation between actors Ann Reinking and Erzsébet Földi is quite poignant, however, and provides telling elaboration on the effect the filmmaker was known to have on his collaborators—especially women. The older stuff also justifies compilation, particularly the commentaries with Helm and Roy Scheider, which are both refreshingly generous in providing details pertaining to the actual making of the film. Helm memorably discusses the famous intercutting editing technique that’s used in both Lenny and All That Jazz, which he says originated from Bob Fosse’s dissatisfaction with Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the former (an anecdote that’s alluded to in the latter). There are also a variety of vintage interviews with Fosse himself, though they’re in the context of talk shows and, by necessity, don’t go as deep into working methods as fans would almost certainly prefer. Compensating to a degree are the docs "Portrait of a Choreographer" and "The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards," though these could have also divulged greater detail and context. This doesn’t quite feel like a definitive collection of supplements, though it’s engaging and deeply felt. Rounding out the package is the theatrical trailer and an essay by critic Hilton Als, which is unusually poetic and elliptical for such an inclusion.
Criterion legitimizes Bob Fosse’s brilliant musical X-ray with in an induction into its pantheon and a transfer that admirably refuses to moot its seamy, gritty, furious poetry.