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All That Jazz (#110 of 10)

Climb on Board: Pippin at the Music Box Theatre

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Climb on Board: <em>Pippin</em> at the Music Box Theatre
Climb on Board: <em>Pippin</em> at the Music Box Theatre

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be a sucker. Step right up to Pippin, the greatest homegrown show of the season. It even has a puppy. This eye- and pelvis-poppin’ extravaganza seems willing to stop at nothing to make us ooh and aww. But miraculously, it never stoops. Instead, most of its nonstop thrills, chills, and threat of spills fly as high as the tip of its big-top tent. Yes, director Diane Paulus has traded out the original’s trope of an itinerant commedia dell’arte band of players for a troop of traveling cirque performers. And the dazzlingly executed change gives the Broadway revival, its first, a leg up facing down its biggest threat: the looming shadow of Bob Fosse.

The legendary director-choreographer won two Tonys for the first production and was roundly credited for its blockbuster success. Without his hands-on involvement, such as a later tour with Chita Rivera and returning star Ben Vereen, much of the magic was gone. Subsequent reimaginings in London (with a video-game concept) and in regional and community theaters have usually failed, giving the material a reputation as a relic tied to an era and a genius long since passed. But Paulus, of the recent Tony Award-winning revivals of Hair and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, has come to the rescue. Her Pippin moves as fast and forcefully as if it were shot out of a cannon.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Odie Henderson’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Odie “Odienator” Henderson’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Odie “Odienator” Henderson’s Top 10 Films of All Time

I’m a compulsive. It’s no surprise that my list is full of movies about compulsion. Whether it’s a man who must play God in his relationship, casting his beloved in an image of his design, or a guy who can’t stop working, whoring, and drugging, I find myself drawn to depictions of people trying to find order in chaos. I’ve discovered this has only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. When I dug up my 2002 list of this type, I shuffled the order and kept eight of the titles. I dropped the most emotional and the most rigorously organized movies, replacing them with films that were twice as organized and emotional. By this rationale, I’ll drop four movies in 2022 and be driven bat-shit insane looking for replacements.

This isn’t a list of my favorite movies, though two of these would appear on that list. This is a list of movies that profoundly affected me more than any others. With that said, a caveat is in order: Movie lists always inspire grouchy comments reflecting what a person felt should have been on them. Let me stop you now. You have no say in what should or shouldn’t be here because you are not me. Thank your lucky stars for that.

Summer of ‘86: Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling

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Summer of ‘86: <em>Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling</em>
Summer of ‘86: <em>Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling</em>

With its fractured narrative, complete with gimmicky spectral figure guiding us through the proceedings, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling is Richard Pryor’s All That Jazz. Playing like a greatest hits collection of Pryor’s stand-up routines, it begins with its titular character freebasing his way into a hospital burn unit, features him pulling a starter pistol on the Mafia, and shows him destroying his wife’s car when she threatens to leave him. Jo Jo Dancer’s profession mirrors Pryor’s own, as does his backstory: The film is shot in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s hometown and the location of the brothel where both he and Jo Jo Dancer grew up. Columbia Pictures wouldn’t grant Bob Fosse’s wish to play Jazz’s Joe Gideon, but they let Pryor play himself, or “himself” as it were, creating a meta experience before meta was popular.

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling is far from a perfect film, with passages as awkward as its title. But it is far more ambitious than one would expect from Pryor, who made this his narrative feature film debut. After directing Richard Pryor: Here and Now, Pryor and his longtime comedy writer Mr. Paul Mooney teamed up with Rocco Urbisci to write a biographical film about a destructive stand-up comedian. Since Hollywood, with rare exception, gave Pryor the chance to play dramatic scenes of great pathos and emotion, his writers script him several well-executed moments where Pryor proves a much more subtly effective actor than one might envision. As director, Pryor makes typical newbie mistakes but is excellent when portraying something he knows well. Assisted by his DP John A. Alonzo, Pryor shoots a coke-fueled party with frenetic energy, visually propelling the narrative forward with minimal dialogue. Dancer’s first scene, with Pryor crawling around looking for freebase to smoke, reeks with desperation.

Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!

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Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!

FOX

Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!

Dear Ryan Murphy:

Be crazy.

By crazy, I mean unhinged, unpredictable and inspired. Think Bob Clampett going full-tilt surreal in Porky in Wackyland. Or Chuck Jones starting out spoofing opera in What’s Opera, Doc?, then building to a climax of thunderous spectacle and heartfelt emotion that wipes the smile off your face (until Bugs Bunny restores it with, “Well, what did you expect in an opera…a happy ending?”) Think Frank Tashlin building a live-action cartoon around his already-cartoony leading man, Jerry Lewis. Or Bob Fosse directing an autobiographical musical fantasia while he was still alive, and structuring the entire thing as a deathbed flashback, and devoting the film’s final third to musical hospital staff and equipment as bits of mise-en-scène. Think Alfred Hitchcock staging entire feature films in single locations (Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Widow), ending The Birds with an eerie, almost European-art-film-like anticlimax, and killing off his leading lady in Psycho 40 minutes into the film and turning his focus to her killer, and making you think he’d killed his leading lady in Vertigo only to have her show up again during the film’s second half, by way of setting up an even darker, sicker, more moving story than the one you were already watching.

“On Broadway” and All That Jazz

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“On Broadway” and <em>All That Jazz</em>
“On Broadway” and <em>All That Jazz</em>

Bob Fosse directed five features in 15 years, starting with 1967’s Sweet Charity and ending with 1983’s Star 80. This pace suggests that Fosse was very deliberate in choosing his material, like Stanley Kubrick or Sergio Leone. Yes and no. Fosse was an obsessive artist, but not about movies—or rather, not just about movies. Seeming to believe that dance was the purest way to express joy, Fosse used moviemaking to exorcise joy’s opposites: not just pain, but the obsessive nature of artists—particularly the way attention to detail can cause men to shut themselves off from the rest of the world. On stage, choreographing sexual-playful spasms of intricate movement, Fosse seemed to revel in his naughty-boy sense of play. But on film, he examined the self-destructive component of celebrity and asserted that self-loathing was the driving force of show business.

Lenny and the Price of Freedom

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<em>Lenny</em> and the Price of Freedom
<em>Lenny</em> and the Price of Freedom

Lenny opens in shocking fashion, with an extreme close-up of Valerie Perrine’s mouth. Perrine is playing Honey Bruce, the ex-wife of comic Lenny Bruce. Though it’s a pretty obvious homage by director Bob Fosse to Orson Welles and one of the earliest, most famous shots in Citizen Kane, the effect is entirely different. The close-up is so extreme that the tiny hairs around Perrine’s mouth are visible. The shot of Charlie Kane’s mouth is fantastical; this shot of Honey’s mouth is obscene.

In terms of content, she is talking about Lenny Bruce’s many drug and obscenity arrests, but the visual impact of that strange close-up is what we remember. After some brief moments of Bruce’s act during his brief prime and more of the film’s frequent Kane-like interview-driven narrative, the film starts in earnest—not with star Dustin Hoffman recreating the comic’s early nightclub days, but with Perrine recreating the early career of Honey Bruce, a.k.a. stripper Honey Harlow.

The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema

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The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema
The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema

1. CINEMA: DEAD AGAIN

MZS: We just came through a pretty tumultuous year for movies, and for the media and the entertainment industry in general. Although it’s not possible to cover everything, I’d like for us to at least touch on some of what I think were evolutionary highlights—moments, movements, trends or developments that altered movies, or how we perceive movies.

Right after the first of the year, David Denby tried to to get at a big part of this—specifically the effect of technological change—in his New Yorker piece “Big Pictures.” But it didn’t satisfy me. In fact, parts of it were so out-of-it that they reminded me of an old episode of Gilligan’s Island where the castaways run into a Japanese soldier who wanders out of the bushes where he’s been for 20 years not knowing that the war is over.

Angels of Death: A Prairie Home Companion and All That Jazz

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Angels of Death: <em>A Prairie Home Companion</em> and <em>All That Jazz</em>
Angels of Death: <em>A Prairie Home Companion</em> and <em>All That Jazz</em>

In Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006), the filmmakers respectively invoke death to gently chastise viewers for the imaginary crime of not affording them the appreciation they feel they deserve. Both works cry out, “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” Yet for all their surface similarities, they are oceans apart in tone.

All That Jazz, one of my favorite movies, is meandering, infuriating and surreal, packed with dance numbers and music. Scripted by Robert Alan Aurthur, and owing Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ a debt too large to repay, Fosse reimagines the musical drama of his own life, sometimes employing original cast members (Ann Reinking plays a character based on herself), while crafting a self-congratulatory piece that screams “I am Bob Fosse! I am breathing down the Grim Reaper’s neck because I’m a drug-addicted workaholic! Partake in my world of cynical Broadway smut, and celebrate me before it’s too late!” Prairieis also meandering, infuriating, surreal and full of music. Owing All That Jazz a similarly huge debt, Altman builds a dramatic frame around a facsimile of Keillor’s long-running radio program and some of its recurring castmembers and characters, while crafting a self-congratulatory piece that declares, “I am Robert Altman! The Grim Reaper is breathing down my neck! Partake in my world of cynical Midwestern sing-a-longs and celebrate me before it’s too late!”

In Flesh for Frankenstein, Udo Kier says, “To know death, you must fuck life in the gallbladder!” Both Prairie and Jazz aim for a more easily accessible point of penetration by envisioning the Angel of Death as a hot blonde chick dressed in virginal white. In Jazz, Jessica Lange plays Angelique, who appears to protagonist and Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) in a form he can appreciate. He knows that she has come for him; like the Ghost of Christmas Past, Angelique leads Gideon through the various events that led to their meeting. Though a chronic lothario who lies to the women in his life, Gideon feels compelled to be truthful to Angelique—and to resist her. When she moves to administer the Kiss of Death, Gideon stops her; it might be the first time he’s ever resisted a woman’s charms. Angelique seems vapid, but her dialogue reveals that her bullshit detector is on: “I always look for the worst in people,” Joe tells her. “A little of yourself in them?” she asks. Fosse also alludes to Angelique taking the physical representation of one of Gideon’s fans and former lovers: Gideon’s mother tells Angelique, “He always loved you.” Meanwhile, back in the real world, Joe Gideon is dying in the hospital while the backers of his latest Broadway show weigh their options. Gideon’s death would potentially mean the demise of the show, unless the backers can convince Gideon’s nemesis (John Lithgow) to direct it; however, their accountants state that if Gideon dies, they can make a bigger profit by letting the show die with him. Thus Angelique gets to claim Gideon’s last potential triumph in a two-for-one sale on his soul.