All That Jazz
The preternaturally gifted director and choreographer Bob Fosse turned the camera on his own life for this madly imaginative, self-excoriating musical masterpiece. Roy Scheider gives the performance of his career as Joe Gideon, whose exhausting work schedule—mounting a Broadway production by day and editing his latest movie by night—and routine of amphetamines, booze, and sex are putting his health at serious risk. Fosse burrows into Gideon’s (and his own) mind, rendering his interior world as phantasmagoric spectacle. Assembled with visionary editing that makes dance come alive on-screen as never before, and overflowing with sublime footwork by the likes of Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, and Ben Vereen, All That Jazz pushes the musical genre to personal depths and virtuosic aesthetic heights.
In what is easily the biggest surprise for me this year, Criterion releases Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz on Blu-ray in a new dual-format edition, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The high-definition transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz. A standard definition version is found on the first dual-layer DVD and the image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
This new high-definition transfer, done by Fox and taken from a new 4K scan of the original negative, could doubtfully look better. It looks about as much like a film I figure a transfer can, delivering a staggering amount of detail in every shot. Film grain is perfectly rendered and edges are clean and free of distortion or edge-enhancement. Aside from a few of the musical numbers and some neon lights here and there, the film has a fairly drab look in terms of colours but they’re perfectly rendered and look to be correct. Black levels are also fairly rich and details can still be seen in the shadows. The print has also been restored quite thoroughly and I don’t recall any obtrusive flaws.
The DVD’s transfer also comes off looking fairly good. It has more trouble rendering the film’s grain structure and compression is more of an issue, but for a standard-definition transfer it manages to still deliver as sharp an image as it can. The Blu-ray’s presentation, though, is noticeably smoother and more natural while retaining the film’s wonderful gritty look. A fantastic looking presentation.
The Blu-ray and DVD both deliver 3.0 tracks, presented in DTS-HD MA on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital on the DVD. Dialogue is clean and easy to hear but can be a little flat overall. Much more impressive are the film’s musical numbers which sound to have been remastered and range is far more rich and dynamic during these sequences and could have been recorded yesterday. Audio sticks to the forward stage but spreads out nicely between the three speakers, especially during these musical performances. On the whole it sounds superb.
Criterion loads up this edition with a number of supplements, both old and new, starting with a 2007 audio commentary featuring editor Alan Heim, which has been taken from the 2007 DVD edition released by Fox. The commentary, which I haven’t listened to before, is a bit disappointing as Heim seems to have trouble filling it with material. There are huge gaps filled with dead space littered throughout and there are times where he just pops up to say how much he likes something or how true something in the film was to show business. He does throw in a few good bits of information, such as some of Fosse’s quirks (he didn’t like dirty feel on film so he refused to show them), gets into detail about the heart surgery scene, which was a real operation that actually ran into trouble (the patient survived, though, and was actually invited to the film’s premiere), and also explains why multiple studios were involved. Other than that, though, it’s a fairly empty track.
Criterion also pulls in Roy Scheider’s scene-specific commentary that was found on Fox’s 2003 DVD edition, though the notes say it was recorded in 2001. It only covers 34-minutes’ worth of footage from the film but Scheider offers some wonderful comments about his performance and the film. Scheider had to quickly ramp up on the film—which included learning to dance—after he came on board when Richard Dreyfuss had dropped out (is it just me, or is it hard to imagine even a younger Dreyfuss playing this role?) He talks about Fosse and his personality (he had a deep fear of failure) and how he adapted those traits into his role since, despite what Fosse may have said, Gideon was based on the filmmaker. Scheider talks about his scenes with Jessica Lange, which Columbia wanted removed (this is why Fox would come in eventually) and gets into great detail about the final number in the film. It’s almost a shame the track only covers a quarter of the film but it’s an engaging track packed full of material, and works so much better than Heim’s.
Criterion then adds on some new material, starting with a new interview between actors/dancers Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi, who played Gideon’s girlfriend and daughter respectively. The two became very good friends during filming and they talk primarily about the numbers they did together, such as the one for “Everything Old is New Again” and the various numbers that appear during the hallucination sequence later on in the film. The two talk about their history in the business, their training, and Foldi talks about auditioning for the part, not realizing it was for a film. They also fondly recall working with Fosse and heap praise on Scheider’s performance. The two just talk, seeming to forget there are cameras there filming them, making it a rather loose but quite informative extra. The feature runs 34-minutes.
Editor Alan Heim than talks about his work with Fosse and how they developed their editing style together, and at 15-minutes it’s sadly far more informative than his commentary. The fragmented style employed in All That Jazz was actually born out of a type of necessity when the two worked on Fosse’s earlier film, Lenny. Feeling that Dustin Hoffman wasn’t giving the character the edge he needed (Heim thinks he was afraid to come off as unlikeable) they employed the fragmented editing, intercutting with other sequences, in hopes it would give the performance more of an edge. Heim talks about the opening “cattle call” sequence and the difficulty in editing that, and the rhythm sequences were edited to, though not necessarily to the rhythm of any music that was on the soundtrack. He also talks about his other work, including Star 80 (which I was surprised to see clips from here, though it appears to be a full frame DVD) and Fosse’s death. I’d recommend this one over the commentary track by Heim.
Criterion then includes a number of archival interviews featuring Fosse: a 1980 episode of the late night program Tomorrow (32-minutes), which also features choreographer Agnes de Mille, 27-minutes’ worth of clips from an episode of The Southbank Show, and then what looks like rough footage from a 1986 interview with Gene Shalit (26-minutes). Throughout this material Fosse gets into great detail about his work as a choreographer and his films. In the Tomorrow interview he and de Mille talk about casting and the “cattle calls” (Fosse admitting he always felt bad when he had to turn down hopeful dancers) and the amount of work that goes into planning. All of the interviews feature him talking about his training and working his way up to a director, and he of course talks about his films, with All That Jazz getting a lot of coverage, mostly because of how it presents the business and its autobiographical aspects. His interview for Southbank is probably the best as he’s his most honest and open there (his insecurities come out a little more here) but altogether they offer a wonderful look at the man himself and his thoughts on his work. All of it is excellent material.
Biographer Sam Wasson sort of expands on these interviews, offering a more comprehensive look at Fosse’s life. He talks about most of the incidents that inspired elements of All That Jazz but gets into more detail about his work as a young artist and his move to Hollywood to be in musicals, only to get screwed over when the musical era started to wind down. Eventually he got into films with Sweet Charity, which bombed and sent him into a depression, only to finally be somewhat lifted out of it with the success of Cabaret. All That Jazz interestingly enough was born out of Fosse’s desire to do a film about death (in his interview Heim mentions Fosse was obsessed with the subject) and was to be based on a novel, but his experience with choreographing Chicago, finishing up the editing on Lenny, and then his own open heart surgery after his body couldn’t take it anymore, the story obviously took a very different direction. Wasson then gets into the influences Fosse has had on the industry. Despite the promise that he was going to look at Fosse’s life outside of All That Jazz he still spends most of the feature talking about that time period, but as a companion to the film and the interviews with Fosse found on this disc we get a well-rounded look at Fosse’s life and his films. This feature runs about 22-minutes.
On the Set presents about 8-minutes worth of behind the scenes footage of Fosse directing the “cattle call” sequence at the beginning of the film, choreographing his dancers, figuring out placement, and constantly looking through his viewfinder. Accompanying this is a 4-minute interview with Roy Scheider on set, talking about Fosse’s style of directing and the character of Joe Gideon. Though the entire section is brief it proves to be rather fascinating watch Fosse work, which doesn’t look at all in different to what Scheider did within the film.
Criterion then carries over a number of features from the 2007 DVD released by Fox. The 22-minute Portrait of a Choreographer gathers together those who worked with him (including Liza) and those who doesn’t even have a passing relationship with the man (Chicago director Rob Marshall) who talk about his talent, his work ethic, and what a class act he was, while also going into detail about what makes many of the numbers in All That Jazz such classics in their own right. The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards is a brief 8-minute featurette about the film’s music from its of Vivaldi to its original numbers and then to its playful use of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” for the final piece. The final feature ported from the Fox DVD is an interview with George Benson on how his rendition of “On Broadway” came to be and his impression of its use in the film: he figured no one could dance to the song but was blown away with how it worked so well in the film. The material feels like most studio produced supplements and it seems to be trying to rush through stuff at times, but some of the insights into Fosse’s style and work do prove interesting.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer. The included booklet features an essay by Hilton Als on Fosse’s visual style, the film’s editing, and parallels the film shares with Fosse’s life
Disappointingly a feature originally announced, a visual essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, has been excised. I can’t say as to why this is but it’s disappointing. If it had to do with the amount of material that is here (there is a lot) I probably would have preferred the Fox featurettes to be dropped, despite the fact they’re actually not that bad and better than most studio produced material. But there’s a lack of academic material on the release and that feature would have filled the void nicely.
Despite the lack of a scholarly side to the disc features Criterion has put together a rather wonderful edition, packing it full of material and offering a fairly thorough look at Fosse and his work.
I’m disappointed by the lack of academic material and probably would have been okay if a couple of the supplements were left aside, but it’s still a fairly stacked edition with a number of perceptive and entertaining features. Pair that with an absolutely wonderful audio/video presentation and you have a good candidate for release of the year.