Director Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is a musical that’s likely to rivet even viewers for whom the genre usually holds no general appeal. Roy Scheider (in an Oscar-nominated turn) stars as the chain-smoking, pill-popping, womanizing, workaholic Joe Gideon. Inspired in part by Fosse’s own experiences while directing the Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny, Gideon is a film and theatre director as well as a choreographer. In a bravura opening sequence scored to George Benson’s “On Broadway,” we’re treated to the harsh realities of a cattle call dance audition. He’s charismatic, decisive, and horny as hell. Throughout All That Jazz, we see Gideon run himself, quite literally, into the ground as he tries to salvage a doomed film project while directing his latest Broadway production.
Scheider is a whirl of focused energy, making Gideon’s exhaustion and eventual life-threatening heart attack viscerally believable. In a surreal touch, Fosse has Gideon communicating throughout with Angelique (Jessica Lange), a death angel who is seemingly a permanent fixture of Gideon’s consciousness. We see Gideon walking a metaphorical tightrope while juggling the women in his life, including ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer, not to be confused with the character played by Ray Wise in Twin Peaks), girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking), and preteen daughter Michelle (Erzsébet Földi). As a character study, Jazz is a fascinating portrait of obsession and the inability of an artist to recognize his own physical limitations. Unfaked, real-deal open heart surgery is almost certain to turn stomachs (especially for those not expecting it), but it makes the end result of Gideon’s self-abuse as visually impactful as possible.
The highly stylized, extended musical climax is, without a doubt, the most thrilling set piece in All That Jazz. Here Gideon goes through the five stages of death (a significant component of the stand-up comedy-based feature film Gideon is seen wrestling with in the editing room). There’s hardly been a more lavish, joyous, and unconventional examination of death on film in the past to rival this song-and-dance number. Lead by the legendary Ben Vereen, the sequence is scored to a demented re-imagining of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” only here it’s “Bye Bye Life.” The effect is humorous in a twisted way, yet touching in the way it encapsulates the life of a colorful, creative artist.
Criterion’s Blu-ray restoration is magnificent, retaining the natural grain expected of a 1979 film. Clarity is nothing short of amazing. As is inherent in the Giuseppe Rotunno’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, colors are realistic yet subtly muted. With the original 35mm camera negative serving as the basis for Criterion’s new transfer, this totally refreshed edition is a pleasure to watch. The restored audio track is offered as a lossless DTS-HD MA 3.0 track. The fact that it’s not 5.1 surround is simply indicative of the era in which the soundtrack was mixed. As a flawlessly faithful reproduction of the film’s original sound design, again Criterion’s work is simply top notch.
A mixture of new and previously-available supplements helps to make this the definitive edition of All That Jazz. Editor Alan Heim (an Oscar winner for his work here) provides an audio commentary (first released in 2007) that is insightful and focused. Heim doesn’t shy away from describing disagreements he had with Fosse. Roy Scheider is heard on scene-specific commentary (from 2001) during which the late actor describes the physical rigors of his role. New features include a 34-minute interview with cast members Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi, a 15-minute interview with Heim, and a 20-minute chat with Fosse biographer Sam Wasson. Vintage pieces include a 1986 Gene Shalit interview with Fosse, a 1980 episode Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow (featuring Fosse), a 1981 episode of The South Bank Show, the documentary Portrait of a Choreographer, and several additional shorter pieces.
Though somewhat overlooked today in the pantheon of great films of the late-‘70s/early-‘80s, All That Jazz was recognized with nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (it nabbed four statues, though none in the so-called “major” categories). The Criterion Collection has done a spectacular job of presenting the film in the best way imaginable, with first-rate audio/visual presentation and a wealth of extras. The dual-format Blu-ray edition also includes two standard DVDs (one with the film, one with the extras).[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00KE3B6NI]